The Practical Beekeeper
Why this beekeeping web site?
I suppose you'd have to be living under a rock these days to have not heard
that the honey bees and beekeepers are in trouble. The problems are complex,
far reaching and mostly recent. They are certainly a threat to the survival
of the beekeeping industry but, even more so, to the survival of many plants
which we need or want for food and many other plants that are a necessary part
of the environment.
"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."-George Bernard Shaw
It seems like there is some controversy over whether it is even possible to
keep bees without treatments. But there are many of us who are doing this
of us beekeepers spend a lot of effort fighting with the Varroa mites, I'm
happy to say my biggest problems in beekeeping now are things like trying to get
nucs through the winter here in
Southeastern Nebraska and coming up with hives that won't hurt my back from
lifting or better ways to
feed the bees.
So my purpose is first of all to talk about how to deal with the current
problems of beekeeping, and second of all
how to work less and accomplish more at beekeeping.
Let's do a short overview of the problems in beekeeping and the solutions.
The details are in the articles in the menu on the left.
Unsustainable beekeeping system
"Beekeeping now has the dubious honor of becoming the first part of our system of industrial agriculture to actually fall apart. Let’s stop pretending that something else is going on. We no longer have enough bees to pollinate our crops. Each time the bees go through a downturn, we respond by making things more stressful for them, rather than less--we move them around more often, expose them to still more toxic substances, or fill the equipment up again with more untested and poorly adapted stock. We blame the weather, the mites, the markets, new diseases, consumers, the Chinese, the Germans, the (fill in your favorite scapegoat), other beekeepers, the packers, the scientific community, the price of gas, global warming--anything rather than face up to what’s really happening. We are losing the ability to take care of living things."--Kirk Webster
So why are we having problems? We have a lot of recent pests and diseases
that have made it to North America (and most other places in the world) in
the last 30 years or so. As someone once said, "You can't keep bees like
grandpa did cause grandpa's bees are dead." Most of us beekeepers have lost
all of our bees one time or another in the last few decades and this seems
to be getting worse. So part of the problem for beekeepers is the pests, but
there are other issues.
We have a narrow gene pool to start with here and between pesticides, pests,
and overzealous programs to control Africanized Honey Bees, many of the
pockets of feral bees have been depleted leaving only the queens that people
buy. When you consider that there are only a handful of queen breeders
providing 99% of the queens, that's a pretty small gene pool. This deficiency
used to be made up by feral bees and people
rearing their own queens. But the recent
trend is to encourage everyone to not rear their own queens and only buy them.
Especially in AHB (Africanized Honey Bee) areas.
The other side of the pest issue is that the standard answer offered by the
experts has been to use pesticides in the hives by beekeepers to kill the
mites and other pests. But these build up in the wax and cause sterile
drones which in turn causes failing queens. One estimate I heard from one
of the experts on the subject put the average supersedure rate at three
times a year. That means the queens are failing and being replaced three
times a year. This is stunning to me since most of my queens are three
Wrong Gene Pool
The other side of helping bees with treatments of pesticides and antibiotics
is that you keep propagating the bees that can't survive. This is the
opposite of what we need. We beekeepers need to be propagating the ones that
can survive. Also we keep propagating the pests that are strong enough to
survive our treatments. So we keep breeding wimpy bees and super pests. Also
for years we have bred bees to not rear drones, be larger, and use less
propolis. Some of these make them reproductively challenged (less drones
and larger bees hence larger slower drones) and some make them less able to
handle viruses (less propolis).
Upset ecology of the bee colony
A bee colony is a whole system in itself of
beneficial and benign fungi, bacteria, yeasts, mites, insects and other flora
and fauna that depend on the bees for their lively hood. All of the pest
controls tend to kill the mites and insects. All of the antibiotics used by
beekeepers tend to kill either the bacteria (Terramycin, Tylosin, essential oils,
organic acids and thymol do this) or the fungi and yeasts (Fumidil, essential oils, organic acids and thymol do this).
The whole balance of this precarious system has been upset by all the treatments in the hive. And
recently beekeepers switched to a new antibiotic, Tylosin, which the beneficial
bacteria has not had a chance to build up resistance to and they have switched
to formic acid as a treatment which shifts the pH radically to the acidic and
kills many of the microorganisms of the hive.
Beekeeping House of Cards
So beekeepers, with the advice and assistance of the USDA and the
universities, have built this precarious system of beekeeping that relies on
chemicals, antibiotics and pesticides to keep it going. And beekeepers keep
breeding the resistant pests that can survive the treatments, contaminating
the entire wax supply with poisons (and we make our foundation out of that
contaminated wax so it is a closed system) and breeding queens that can't
survive without all of this treatment.
What can we do to have a sustainable beekeeping system?
The only way to have a sustainable system of beekeeping is to stop treating.
Treating is a death spiral that is now collapsing.
To leverage this, though you really need to raise your own queens from local
surviving bees. Only then can you get bees who genetically can survive and
parasites that are in tune with their host. As long as we treat we get weaker
bees who can only survive if we treat, and stronger parasites who can only
survive if they breed fast enough to keep up with our treatments. No stable
relationship can develop until we stop treating.
The other problem, of course, is that if we just stop now with the system of
beekeeping we have, the genetically and environmentally weakened bees will
usually die. Even if they are genetically capable of surviving in a clean
(uncontaminated) environment, we have to get to an environment they can
survive in or they will still die. So what is that environment?
We need clean wax. Using foundation made from recycled, contaminated wax will not get that
for us. The entire world wax supply is now contaminated with
Natural comb will provide clean wax.
Next we beekeepers need to control the pests in a natural way. We will
elaborate more on this as we go, but Dee and Ed Lusby arrived at the
conclusion that the solution to this was to get back to
natural cell size. Foundation
(the source of contamination in the hive from pesticide buildup in the
world beeswax supply) is designed to guide the bees to build the size
cells we want. Since workers are from one size and drones from another and
since beekeepers for more than a century have viewed drones as the enemy
of production, beekeepers use foundation to control the size cells the bees
make. At first this was based on natural sizes of cells. Early foundation
ran from about 4.4mm to 5.05mm. But then someone (Francis Huber was one of the first to write about it) observed that bees build
a variety of cell sizes and that large bees emerged from large cells and
small bees emerged from small cells. So Baudoux decided that if you
enlarged the cells more you could get larger bees. The assumption was that
larger bees could haul more nectar and therefore would be more productive.
So now, today, we have a standard cell size of foundation that is 5.4mm.
When you consider that at 4.9mm the comb is about 20mm thick and at 5.4mm the comb
is 23mm thick this makes a difference in the volume. According to Baudoux
the volume of a 5.555mm cell is 301cubic mm. The volume of a 4.7mm cell is
192mm. Natural cell size runs from about 4.4mm to 5.1mm with 4.9mm or smaller
being the common size in the core of the brood nest.
So what we have is unnaturally large cells making unnaturally large bees.
We will elaborate more on why and how on the page
"Natural Cell Size". The short version is
that with natural cell size we get control of the Varroa population and can
finally keep our bees alive without all the treatments.
Honey and real pollen are the proper food of bees.
Sugar syrup has a much higher pH (6.0) than Honey (3.2 to 4.5) (Sugar is more
alkali). Stating the same thing conversely, honey has a much lower pH than sugar
syrup (Honey is more acidic). This affects the reproductive capability of
virtually every brood disease in bees plus Nosema.
The brood diseases all reproduce more at the pH of sugar (6.0) than at the
pH of honey (~4.5). And this is not to mention that honey and real pollen are
more nutritious than pollen substitute and sugar syrup. Artificial pollen
substitute makes for short lived, unhealthy bees.
Pick the beekeeping subjects on the menu to read more detail and see
pictures of some of the things I've been doing.
Click on the thumbnails for larger pictures. Click on the pictures at the
top to read more about things that look interesting.
Hope you enjoy,
Bee Camp 22 May - 7 June 2015
Hang out with me, talk bees and help me do bee and farm work.
If you are interested in hearing me speak or having me speak at your conference or club: Speaking
In case you were wondering why I've been less available as far as forums and emails, I have been in the middle of a lot of changes. I've been out of the country and was wrapping that up. Then I was speaking. Right now I'm in the middle of moving to a very old house that I just purchased and which is also in need of repairs, fixing up the old house to sell and working full time. So if I'm slow to respond, I apologize. But likely this will continue for some time into the future until I get moved and things settle into a new normal. Thank you for your patience.
Addressing comments about the book
Type Face: For some reason this comes up from time to time in the reviews. All the people who review my book who are over 40 love the typeface. A few of the people under 30 think they got cheated because they think it would take less pages if the typeface was smaller. So just to clarify: Standard books (except for cheap paperbacks) tend to be 10pt - 14pt. My book is 12 pt. To qualify as a large print book with The National Association for Visually Handicapped (NAVH) or the Library of Congress it would have to be a minimum of 16pt and should preferably be 18pt. The reason my book appears to be larger print is the typeface. If you put 12pt Verdana next to 18pt Garamond they seem to be about the same, but they are not. Verdana is simply more readable at a given size. It is a win-win. You get readable type, but it does not take up more pages.
Redundancy: The books were written originally as a web site. The web site was reorganized into three books: beginner, intermediate and advanced. Think of it as three books and you won't see nearly as much redundancy. You can't just jump into the middle of an advanced discussion of something without some groundwork. That will be the same groundwork as when you are introducing the subject to a beginner.
There is also the, perhaps philosophical difference of view. I've always found it irritating when an author (or editor) expects me to hold my place in a book while I look something up elsewhere just so they can supposedly reduce redundancy. I've never minded redundancy. I've always minded having to interrupt the flow of what I was doing to look it up. So I tend to include a lot of things rather send you on a wild goose chase to find it.
Reviews: I know a lot of you are big fans of the book, because I get a lot of emails every day on it. It would really help if you would leave positive reviews on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. If you are willing, there is also Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca etc. as well. But at least Amazon.com would really help. Thanks. Also, I think Huber's book is very important and I would appreciate if those of you who agree would post reviews for that or other books I've published that you really like.
Amazon US |
Amazon CA |
Amazon UK |
Barnes and Nobel US |
Price is $49
Details: Hardback 6 x 9 in. B&W 676 pages 1 5/8" thick 219 illustrations.
Things to consider:
This book is mostly a rework of what is on my website for free. I don't want you to buy it and be disappointed that there isn't very much new here. You can get it organized in the form of a book and have something more permanent. If you want to see if you like my writing, read my web site first.
This is three volumes in one hardback book. Below you will find the first volume seperately in paperback. The book is divided up as "Volume I Beginning Beekeeping Naturally", "Volume II Intermediate Beekeeping Naturally" and "Volume III Advanced Beekeeping Naturally". The paperback below is the same material and even the same page numbering as volume one (see the upper left for the link to "Books For Sale" for Volume II and Volume III and other books) but allow people to buy just a beginning book if they like and then buy more as they advance. So you also should keep this in mind when looking for and buying the book.
Also, this is the same material as you will read here on the web site, so if you have an opinion on the material, feel free to post a review on Amazon (US UK etc.) and Barnes and Nobel.
This is also available in Spanish. If you've read it in Spanish please leave a review on Amazon.es as well as Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble etc.
There are only two reviews on Amazon.es and one makes several simply false claims about the quality of the printing etc.
I ordered one from Amazon.es in case the distributor was shipping something different there and it looks identical to the US version of the Spanish edition. So if you have read the Spanish version and like it, please add some reviews.
Amazon US |
Amazon CA |
Amazon UK |
Barnes and Nobel US
Details: Hardback 6 x 9 in. B&W 674 pages 1-15/16" thick 149 illustrations.
This is probably the most significant bee book every published. What Huber discovered and wrote about here, laid the ground work for all the practical knowledge we have of bees today. His discoveries were so revolutionary, that beekeeping can be divided in two eras very easily as pre-Huber and post-Huber.
Reviews on Amazon, Barnes and Nobel etc. are always appreciated. Please help me get the word out on this amazing book. I also have it in French and German.
This is just Volume one of the above complete book. It is just the "Beginning" section of the book and it's paperback.
Details: Paperback 6 x 9 in. B&W 282 pages 44 illustrations.
Amazon US |
Amazon CA |
Amazon UK |
Barnes and Nobel US |
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