Regenerative Beekeeping

No doubt everyone’s adventure with beekeeping is different.   Ideally it starts with a good beekeeping class, combining the theory and the practical, followed by a five year period in which, with the help of a mentor, one becomes familiar with the various  storylines of a colony of honey bees.   What happens next depends first on why one keeps bees, secondly on one’s level of curiosity, and thirdly the extent to which one  exposes oneself to current research, thinking and practices. 


In retrospect, the class I took initially was not a good one. The presenter was knowledgable but did not have the communication skills that are an integral part of  inspired teaching, and there was no logic behind the curriculum.  The tip-off was the number of participants who were taking the class for the third, fourth and even fifth time.   This is a  reminder that we need somehow to assess the skill levels of those who volunteer for presentations under the banner of our various associations.  Their willingness to give of their time and share their knowledge is cherished; the question as to gauging their levels of competence is delicate but consequential.  


Also involved with this class was a local supplier who had preordered all the paraphernalia, including packages, that the participants might need.  I can recall no discussion of alternatives, nor of the pros and cons of packages. 


I was fortunate to stumble on the assistance of a mentor during my first year, which proved vital.  It was not a service provided by the local beekeeping organization which, at the time, was a rather small, stolid group which did not offer much outside of the once-a-month meeting. 


After six years of practical, hands-on experience supported by a reasonable amount of reading, and with Mary’s support, I committed to attending Apimondia in Montpellier, France, in 2009.  It was inspirational, stimulating and self-affirming; I returned not only with increased knowledge but also with the determination to take my honey bee management to a new level and to share both with others. 


In the following decade there were a series of stimuli, one of which, in 2018, was what Tom Seeley calls Darwinian Beekeeping, and which I prefer to think of as Regenerative, or Restorative,  Beekeeping.  The latter terms were inspired by a few visionary farmers who reject the term Sustainable Agriculture on the grounds that our present farming techniques are not sustainable, neither for the planet nor for long term food production; instead these farmers are focusing  on restoring and regenerating the quality of the soil, on which ultimately everything else depends. 


Dr. Seeley suggests that beekeeping has become increasingly designed for the benefit of the beekeeper rather than the health of the bees, and he has examined feral colonies to survey  the conditions that bees choose for themselves, given their druthers.  David Papke, who  had been similarly inspired, was a step ahead of me in coming up with a hive design that was more bee friendly and we spent a year re-designing our hive bodies and presenting, with differing levels of success, our reasoning to some local bee organizations. The reactions ranged from outright dismissal to skepticism to enthusiasm to excitement.  


 It is important to note that at each of the three occasions on which I have been fortunate to hear Tom Seeley present his findings, he stresses that this is a concept for hobbyists rather than for commercial beekeepers - the  objectives and financial commitments of the latter are less likely to allow for experimentation. 


Too often Darwinian beekeeping  is interpreted as survival of the fittest, requiring a ’hands off’ or ‘ live and let die’ approach by the beekeeper. .  Far from it.  The goal to keep locally adapted, healthy bees without resorting to hard chemicals is right in line with my current objectives. If people can be seen as either butterflies (sitting still, spreading their wings, displaying their beauty and attracting attention) or bees (flitting from flower to flower, cross-pollinating) I am the latter, consistently attracted by different ideas and visions, (flowers) flying to them to enlarge my foraging area and the diversity of food in my brood nest. 


Earlier this year David came across a series of three articles written by Terry Combs and published in the American Bee Journal, August, 2018, and Jan and Feb or 2019. I realized immediately  that they fused all that I had learned over some 20 years and provided a distinct focus under the bigger umbrella of restorative beekeeping.  This is the most recent stimuli in my beekeeping  journey, I have committed the next three years to it, and am enthusiastic as to the challenges and opportunities it presents. 


None of the fundamentals involved are particularly difficult or different.  The first is to keep good records in order to assess queen quality and colony sustainability.  Terry, having once bred guppies, gives example of the complex evaluation sheets he uses; we have devised something a little more simple, with a quantitive assessment that can be used with each colony over a year, culminating in a numerical decision as to how to proceed with those bees the following season.


The process begins by critically selecting the colonies one wants to over-winter, to the extent of culling the queen in any colony that lacks the  resources or mass of bees to survive successfully and combining the remaining bees with a strong colony.

In the spring, the beekeeper selects breeder colonies for queen propagation, which might be either ones own hives that have a persistent record of success (hence the importance of those records) or a feral swarm. Ideally, once established, a beekeeper  should never have to purchase a queen; indeed, the active sharing of queens by local beekeepers   committed to this program is the best source of all.  If a new outside queen is needed, perhaps for genetic diversity,  it is vital to realize that ‘locally adapted’ means more than simply having survived one or two winters.  The queen supplier needs to explain the  testing, evaluation and selection processes the bees have undergone.


Swarming is an integral part of the honey bee cycle.  Rather than trying to prevent it, one can use the swarming impulse to make splits once there are queen cells with larvae.  The thinking  is that bees make specific choices when it comes to developing queen cells, whereas  our choices via grafting are random. The nucs made by these splits can contain either the queen from the original colony or well developed  queen cells.


Drone quality is an increasing topic of conversation. Terry argues in favor of establishing drone mother colonies that have the desired traits.  In York County we do have a community apiary which could conceivable serve as a modified drone mating yard as established by Brother Adam on the moors of Devon, but he was breeding a specific sub-species of honey bee and therefore he wanted his queens to mate with drones of a certain type.  That is not our issue.  We simply want our queens to mate with quality drones.


That leads to the question, what is a quality drone? We know what qualities we want in a queen, but those in a drone are more difficult to quantify.  


Indeed, does it matter?  Jurgen Tautz , writing in The Buzz About Bees, argues that the desired quality comes in the drones that succeed, among hundreds, of mating with a queen, and then again in the selection of sperm to mate with queen’s gametes. He further points out that queens transported to a different area (eg. a mating yard) had a much lower success rate than those in local mating stations (eg. an apiary.)  The reason, he suggests, is that the queen is accompanied by a retinue of forager bees who know the area and escort her to and from the DCA.


Terry is not specific in terms of ‘desirable traits’ but does stress the need for active feral colonies and to introduce occasionally new stock for genetic diversity. 


The takeaway is that if we follow the Darwinian process of not needlessly removing drone cells, and as we develop better and stronger colonies using Terry Combs’ selection procedures, we can assume that the drones will be equally robust and will provide the quality that we need without having to develop specific drone mother colonies. 


The final step is to re-queen each original colony with the best young queens from the splits. Each new queen can be evaluated after a full brood cycle, realizing, as Terry writes, “Rigorous and timely culling is hard but necessary.  If you truly want to help bees, you’re going to have to adopt nature’s hard stance against the weak, deformed and inferior …”


This system does not preclude the use of organic chemicals as part of an integrated pest management system.  In the  specific case of excessive varroa counts, options include freezing the brood, sequestering or replacing the queen,  combining with a resistant colony,  using an organic treatment, or in the worst case scenario, eliminating the entire colony. 


My initial results are encouraging, but it is a small sample and early days -   the survival rate this winter, for the second consecutive year, was 85%.  And there is a close and self-evident connection between hive design and management choices, thus for example the increasing survival of the bees has led me to choose not to feed sugar syrup either in the fall or the late winter these last two years.   


So that is where I am at.  The next three years seem to be taken care of, but as we all know, if you want to make God laugh, tell Her your future plans …

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Latest comments

27.11 | 16:01

Moustache, wax? Of course. Now if all of the drones had mustaches ...

27.11 | 12:43

One of our club members says he got into beekeeping in order to make his own mustache wax. There's the explanation for the bearded/mustached ABF attendees!

13.08 | 05:43

Good morning Mr. Barnes, I'm so pleased to see the best of history teachers is still going strong! Looking at your website brings back some great memories

21.05 | 07:18

Its pleasure to read about Boy Scout here. He plays vital role to serve humanity. I will share after my