Feeding Honeybees, Your Mini-Livestock

Pussy willow, pollen rich.

By Leah Smith

Management is very important with farm animals. How they are raised effects the end products they produce, as well as the benefits they can provide on the homestead. Honeybees are no different. Here are some aspects to consider with your mini-livestock, the honeybees.

Hive Placement

There are requirements when you set up your beehives or bee yard. It shouldn’t be in a low spot in the landscape, and there should be protection from the winter wind and summer sun. But there are other important things to keep in mind when placing your hives. Though honey bees can easily cover a two-mile radius surrounding their hive (or more) to visit a nectar source, it only makes sense that the closer their food sources and the less time spent in travel, the more time the hive will have for performing other important duties; and though it depends on distance traveled and the sugar concentration of the nectar, easily half the energy obtained from gathering nectar can be expended in its collection. Close forage is therefore important for maintaining a healthy, ever-increasing bee yard. Plus, making use the pollination services of your honey bees means keeping them on the homestead and providing them with as diverse forage as you can. Many healthy bees will be willing to pollinate both what you want them to and what they want to.

Placement in an orchard setting is very advantageous, putting the honey bees right on the spot to provide pollination for you and also to take advantage of some early food sources. It is also helpful to plant common orchard companion plants, such as comfrey (Symphytum spp.), mints (Mentha spp.), chicory (Cichorium intybus), and hyssops (Agastache spp.); not only are they wonderful for the biodynamic/organic management of your orchard due to the benefits they provide (olfactory confusion of pests, soil aeration, weed suppression, mineral mining, and fostering beneficial insects, etc.), but they are another source of food for your honey bees. If you build a full-fledged fruit guild in your orchard, it will both produce more food for you and provide even greater opportunities to include bee-friendly plants, including blackberries (Rubus fruticosus), raspberries (Rubus spp.), currants (Ribes spp.), and gooseberries (Ribes hirtellum). Further, if it is necessary to plant a windbreak (which is beneficial to both orchard and honey bee), why not make it a nectar- or pollen-rich one? Plants such as pussy willow (Salix discolor, S. caprea, and S. cinerea), Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa), dogwoods (Cornus spp.), and Siberian pea shrub (Caragana arborescens) will fit the bill nicely.

Another tact to get bees where you want them is to plant flowers they love near flowers you want them to love; in other words, if you want them to pollinate garden crops that may not be their favorite forage, plant flowers nearby that will bring them into the right area. This is one of the many jobs performed by insectary strips (more about them below).

Also, though focusing on what to plant for your honey bees you must also remember that they require water as well as nectar and pollen. Bees will travel far to find the water they require just as they will for flowering plants, so it is important (especially in dry periods with little occurring naturally) to employ waterers to fulfill your bees’ needs.

Season Extension

As with cattle, hone bees want to spend as much time as possible out and eating. But with less and less of the world being wild, whether due to the effects of urban sprawl or destruction of fencerows or diminishing parklands or degraded soils that don’t support plants or land management that dictates removing all manner of “weeds,” it is becoming more challenging for them to find nectar and pollen sources for an extended period of the year. Early spring, when food supplies in the hive are low after surviving the winter, and fall, when humans have taken their harvest off the hives and bees may be out looking for a bit more nectar, are two especially important times of need; be sure to plant accordingly.

Redbud (Cercis spp.), serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.), and pussy willows are valuable for the spring. Redbud and pussy willow are both pollen-rich, and some willows can also produce nectar sugar concentrations as high as 60%. Additionally, redbud and serviceberry are both highly ornamental and suitable for landscaping, while pussy willow, as noted, can serve as a windbreak; so they can each fill a niche in the landscape. Fruit trees such as plums (Prunus spp.), cherries (Prunus spp.), and peaches (Prunus persica) are spring bloomers and prolifically covered with flowers. If you don’t raise an orchard for your own fruit, consider planting native varieties of these fruits, whose blossoms can support the honey bees and fruits can feed song birds and other wildlife. Ornamental landscaping or fencerows can provide appropriate locations for these.

To ensure that your honey bees’ foraging extends into the autumn as long as possible, supply them with goldenrod (Solidago spp.), asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), native thistles (Cirsium spp.), sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), and cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus) to visit. And brambles deserve a re-mention here. Plant black raspberries (R. occidentalis), blackberries, and both summer- and fall-fruiting red raspberries (R. idaeus), and you will have nearly an entire season of favored foraging for the honey bees and fruits for you, as the fall berries will bloom right up to frost.

Dogwood, a useful windbreak.

Diversity and ‘Rotational Grazing’

According to the Xerces Society, an optimum environment for pollinators should have 12 to 20 species of blooming plants with at least three blooming at any one time and spanning as long as possible throughout the year; think of it as rotational grazing with the succession of blooms leading the honey bees to new pastures. Plant diversity is important because it increases the likelihood that your honey bees will get all of the nutrients they require. It is possible for bees to be surrounded by blooms, but if the blooms are of a single variety that lacks complete nutrition (as most do) than they can still starve to death. Diversity is also necessary to keep your farm ecosystem in balance. For example, while clovers (Trifolium spp.) are famous as honey plants, they can also host tarnished plant bugs. Other plants that feed the bees and attract beneficials, like lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) or Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum), will keep the tarnished plant bugs in check and thereby balance the ecosystem.

How you arrange plantings can affect their ability to attract honeybees. For example, planting into “clumps” occupying at least four foot square is often more attractive than thoroughly mixed plantings with each flower as an individual amongst other individuals, if you will. Plants that are attractive and beneficial to honey bees can serve many other purposes and be used in pastures; as green manures, cover crops, and living mulches; for erosion control, ground cover, or in filter strips; and in hedgerows and insectary strips. If you think of these various environments as distinct, it will naturally lead you to selecting a greater variety of plants, as many plants work better in some settings than others.

Pastures that support cattle and other animals can also provide an occasional treat for your honeybees. Management is key here. No flowering, or partial flowering, of pasture plants is often the preferred stage for grazing; fully flowering plants may be too mature and no longer lush enough to be desired by cattle. However, flowering is what the honeybees want (of course). But, as pastures are periodically left to partially or fully flower in order to allow self-reseeding or be baled for hay, there can be times during the year when this varied management means a pasture can provide something for everyone. Alfalfa (Medicago sativa), red clover (T. pratense), and sweetclover (Melilotus spp.) are a few of the usual suspects when it comes to pastures.

Green manures (when defined as being planted during the summer season instead of cash crops as a source of fertility) will often be buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), cowpea (Vigna unguiculata), partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata), or any of the many clovers.

Cover crops that protect the ground through the winter can be berseem clover (T. alexandrinum), crimson clover (T. incarnatum), mustards (Brassica spp.), and radish (Raphanus sativus). In place after winter, they will resume growth in the spring and provide spring flowers.

Living mulches provide many of the same benefits as green manures and cover crops (fertility and soil protection, etc.). Instead of being planted to replace a cash crop, however, they are planted with a cash crop and may well be in place over the winter period. Many plants can be used in any of these three situations, but as a living mulch they can be tightly fitted into a system that makes use of their weed suppression and honey bee-attracting qualities. For example, crimson clover is frequently planted between the rows in blueberry fields. White clover (T. repens) is a very short clover and a perennial, ideal for short crops in permanent bed situations. And cowpea is shade tolerant, working with row crops of any height.

Erosion control is a job often given to New Zealand white clover specifically. White clovers develop a fibrous root system once established, making them unexpectedly ideal for erosion control, and New Zealand white clover it is more vigorous and tolerant of differing soil types than other varieties. Heather (Calluna vulgaris), with its mass of small flowers, is great at both keeping soil in place and keeping honeybees happy.

For plants that cling to the ground as well as cover it, many low-growing herbs like lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus) and mother of thyme (Thymus praecox), and other plants like creeping potentilla (Potentilla neumanianna) are easily managed plantings that provide a flood of flowers.

Filter strips that act to prevent the loss of sediment, nutrients and other materials from the soil need not be simply grass. Planted either along various bodies of water or on extreme slopes, plants like beebalm (Monarda spp.), aster, black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.), milkweed (Asclepias spp.), wingstem (Verbesina spp.), and blue vervain (Verbena hastata) make effective filter strips as well as ornamental and honey bee-friendly ones. As filter strip management allows for properly timed grazing, a planting of sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia), purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), and selfheal (Prunella vulgaris) would please both honey bees and cattle (the seasonal potential for runoff is highest from September through March, when plants should be at least three inches high and “fresh fertilizer” should not be deposited in a filter strip; outside this period, the land can be safely grazed and the fertilization will be appreciated).

Hedgerow plantings can make use of shrubs and trees that will not work in most other situations (in addition to their understory plants), and they can also be constructed to provide food sources for an entire season. Examples include flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), and winter honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.); a variety of small-fruited cherries, hollies (Ilex spp.), and viburnums (Viburnum opulus and V. lantana, for example); common privet (Ligustrum vulgare), panicled hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata), and hypericum trees and shrubs (Hypericum spp.); and Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) would provide forage from spring through winter, respectively, to create a truly heterogenous hedgerow.

Insectary strips can either edge or enter into plots, and be composed of annual or perennial plants (and thus are temporary or permanent). As well as promoting natural pest control by predator insects, they promote pollination of cash crops (and feed the honey bees). An annual insectary strip is likely to include cosmos, cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus), dill (Anethum graveolens), coriander/cilantro (Coriandrum sativum), marigolds (Tagetes tenuifolia), and dwarf sunflowers. Perennial strips might have goldenrod, penstemon (Penstemon spp.), and lobelia (Lobelia spp.).

And Honey Bee Pastures

And finally, these pastures are plots of land of various sizes constructed with the foraging needs of honeybees foremost in the mind. They can include nectar- and pollen-rich herbaceous plants (including legumes) and wildflowers, and even shrubs and trees depending on the type of pasture. When planting a pasture, you can use a mixture of native and nonnative species, depending on conditions and your requirements. The plants may be perennials, biennials, annuals, or self-seeding annuals. You may create single-year, multi-year, or permanent productive pastures. As always, variety is key. Though any of the many plants previously mentioned would be welcome additions to a honeybee pasture, a few commonly used plants that I have yet to mention are phacelia (Phacelia spp.), purple coneflower (Echinacea spp.), wild lilac (Ceanothus spp.), or any of the native roses (Rosa spp.), such as R. rugosa.

Creating a Buzz

So if all of this care has gone into your honeybee diet, what is going to come out? When you have honeybees that have a rich and diverse diet, you have an exceptional product for sale — and lots of it. Honey is not meant to be a corn syrup stand-in; it can possess endless variations in color and taste. And even when you provide your bees with a variety of plants, a heavy nectar flow and well-timed harvesting can get you a single-source honey of great sellable value (though “blended” honeys are quite nice, too). We harvest white clover honey, which has a light, sweetly mild taste that is very appealing to many customers. Other notable single-source honeys include buckwheat, hyssop, meadowfoam (Limnanthes spp.), wingstem, and sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum).

Pollen can command high prices even as an “ordinary” product; add a novel aspect to it and you really have something. One morning when I was rhapsodizing about pollen on my breakfast yogurt, a co-vendor at the farmers’ market responded with a confused expression; he had tried pollen before and said it had no flavor, tasting like hay at best. I gave him some of our pollen, which based on the color and time of harvesting was largely from some of our many varieties of German bearded iris (Iris germanica). Though its grey color might not have seemed appetizing, it was sweet like candy. Next week he said he couldn’t believe the difference between the two pollens. In addition to flavor, pollen color can add something special to your product. Many preferred honeybee food source plants offer some unique shades, such as the greens of buckwheat, meadowsweet (Spiraea spp.), and rosebay willow herb (Chamerion angustifolium); the oranges of pussy willow, wild cherry, and asparagus (Asparagus officinalis); the burgundy hues of red and white clover; phacelia’s purple color; and gray borage pollen.

As with grass-fed beef and free-range chicken eggs, the quality of what goes into your honeybee hive is reflected in the products that come out. A homestead beekeeper is well positioned to produce superior products, whether they are cut-comb honey, extracted honey, or pollen, that will be worth the effort of producing and well worth the price they command.

Note: Many of the plant species in this article come in “horticultural hybrid” varieties. They may be pollen-less or lack other rewards for pollinators. Use native, those for naturalizing, or long-established varieties.

Leah Smith is a freelance writer and home and market gardener. She works on her family’s farm in mid-Michigan called Nodding Thistle (certified organic 1984-2009, principally by Organic Growers of Michigan). A graduate of Michigan State University, she can be reached at noddingthistle@gmail.com.

How Probiotics Can Prevent Honeybee Colony Collapse

By Martin James

I have always been fascinated by honeybees. I started keeping my own hives at the age of 9. I’ve been keeping bees professionally now for over 15 years. Through all this time, my fascination with the bee and the hive has never gone away. I may not know all the bees by name, but I at least know their families!

As a professional beekeeper, I have been subject to the same build and collapse cycles that others have dealt with. Early on in my professional endeavors, I recruited my sister Karla to help me. She has spent a lot of time with nutrition and natural healing and we have applied many of those principles to our beehives as well. Still, even with careful tending and attention to diet and nutrition, we had the cyclic collapses of our hive populations. It was very frustrating and financially challenging to keep a business going when our workforce kept dying every few years.

Martin James and his sister, Karla Bingham, examine hives at the Slide Ridge Honey operation in Utah.
Martin James and his sister, Karla Bingham, examine hives at the Slide Ridge Honey operation in Utah.

I had investigated and heard about many different claims to solve the colony collapse problem, but the cycles didn’t change. The problem was still there, and it was getting worse. So, when I was approached by Ken Hamilton of Bio Minerals Technologies, who said he could cure CCD, I was very skeptical. At first, I dismissed the claim, but I eventually agreed to meet with him and at least hear what he had to say.

That meeting was the beginning of a journey that has changed the lives of my bees — and myself! His solution was relatively simple. He identified the cause of CCD as an accumulation of environmental toxins that caused an eventual deterioration of the beneficial gut microorganisms of the honeybees. In their roles as pollinators, bees are exposed to an extremely toxic cocktail of agricultural chemicals such as herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, etc. These toxins were killing off the beneficial microorganisms in the bee’s gut, which weakened the immune system and the bee.

In addition to the environmental toxins, there is also a shortage in trace minerals in almost all agricultural operations today. People have been farming for generations, but they seldom, if ever, replenish the trace elements in their soils. The lack of trace elements also contributes to the reduction in immune functions, further weakening the bees.

The solution was to provide a high-quality probiotic and broad-spectrum trace element supplement to be mixed into the bee syrup and patty. As we discussed his analysis and proposed solution, it made logical sense, but the real test was in the application. He hadn’t tried it before, and my bees were his guinea pigs.

My first step was to just see how the bees would react to it (i.e. would it kill them?). I took some of the liquid probiotics, opened up a couple hives, sprayed some on the bees and the top bars, and stepped back to see what would happen. As it turned out, the bees loved it! They lapped it up and wanted more.

The result of the probiotic was also audible. When I went into the bee yard and opened the hive, I could hear an angry, high-pitched buzz from all the bees swarming around me and the hives I had opened. They were bouncing off my bee suit and face shield and they were audibly and visibly upset. As soon as I sprayed the probiotic, the result was almost instant. As the bees lapped it up, the sound changed. It went from the high-pitched, angry whine to a lower-pitched, contented hum. The bees were less aggressive and they all settled down and simply went back to work!

Slide Ridge
Slide Ridge Honey has found success in applying probiotics to its hives.

My next test was to mix it into my syrup and patty and feed a group of test hives through the winter and see how they fared. That winter was a good year for all our hives, but my test group came through very strong and without any problems. As we started preparing all our hives for the almond pollination, we incorporated the probiotics and minerals into our regular feeding regimen.

That was over four years ago. Since that time, we have not had a single collapse event. We may lose a colony occasionally, but that is just part of the normal process. Our general winter loss rates are between 5-8 percent. Our almond orchard grading is consistently at the upper limit. Our hives always grade at the maximum strength and the vigor and health of the bees is noticed by the orchard managers.

One of the interesting results of these supplements is in the general behavior of the bees themselves. They are calmer and much easier to work with. They are less excitable when we move them around or need to get into the hive. In fact, we don’t use smoke any more when we work with our bees. Instead, we just spray some liquid probiotic onto the open hive and the bees settle right down. The difference is especially noticeable when we help someone else move their hives. Their bees are a lot meaner than ours!

Another example of the effectiveness of the supplements happened our first spring after we incorporated the probiotics and minerals into the general feeding plan. We brought our bees back from the almond pollination and put them into our spring holding yards where we can work on splits and preparing the hives for honey placement. We had one large holding yard where we had just finished the splits for that group. There were around 1000 hives that were almost ready to go up to their summer locations.

We were at that yard on a windy afternoon, finishing up some of our hive work, when we heard a terrible sound. It was a roadside sprayer! Some contractor was out spraying the sides of the highway in a 30 mph wind, against all regulations and even common sense! Our holding yard was half-a-mile or so away from the highway, but the wind carried the poisons right to us. We watched the bees in the air just drop dead around the hives.

We chased down the sprayer and told him very firmly to stop immediately, but the damage was done. Our expectation was for a total loss of those 1000 hives. We had seen similar events before, so we knew what to expect.

Slide Ridge Honey
Slide Ridge Honey operates out of Utah.

We kept feeding the bees with the supplements, hoping that some of them would survive, but we didn’t have much hope. We eventually moved them out to their summer ranges and just hoped for the best.

When we checked on those hives later that summer, not only were they not dead — they were thriving! The bees were healthy, the hives were strong, and they were producing large amounts of honey. We actually harvested a record amount of honey that year, including from the “damaged” hives!

By all reason, those hives should have failed. Instead, they prospered. Our only difference between previous occasions is the introduction of probiotics and trace elements into their diets. The stronger populations of beneficial microbes in their guts created a stronger immune response that enabled those bees that were not directly hit with the spray to recover from such a concentrated toxin attack.

The stronger immune systems manifest themselves in other ways as well. We no longer use any antibiotics with our bees. We used to treat our hives with antibiotics twice each year to control diseases such as foul brood. Since we started the probiotics and minerals, we eliminated the antibiotic treatments. The bees just don’t need it. We haven’t seen any foul brood in our hives in four years, without antibiotics!

The benefits go beyond just the health of the bee and the hive. Our queens breed easier and lay better than they ever have before. Our hives are stronger for spring splits. We consistently get three and sometimes four nucs from a single hive! The stronger reproduction gives us yet another income stream as we sell nucs and packages every spring, to individuals, and to regional retail locations. No longer do we spend the spring recovering from the previous year’s losses. We lose very few, so we can grow as we want to and still sell off our excess.

The difference is also notable in the quality of our honey. We have always had good honey, but when we introduced the probiotics and minerals, the quality was even higher! We sent some honey samples to a large national food distributor, so they could evaluate it and decide if they wanted to buy it. When they got the results back from their lab they called us and told us our honey was their new international standard. It was the purest honey they had ever tested (it tasted pretty good too)!

We have been sharing our success with many of the small beekeepers in our area. Helping and sharing have always been an important part of our business model. We have always been a resource for those who keep a few hives and need some help, or who want to learn more. Many of these small beekeepers actually keep their hives with ours during the winter and they come with us into pollination. We try to teach all of them our methods so that their bees can be healthy too.

Those smaller “partner” beekeepers that follow our nutrition and health maintenance programs have results very similar to ours. However, some of our small beekeepers run their own nutrition and maintenance programs. Those beekeepers are still subject to the cyclical crashes, even while our hives continue at full strength. We have seen that illustrated very clearly over several winters, with some of these less careful beekeepers losing up to 100% of their bees. Yet our loss rates remain in the single digits.

At this point, the probiotics and trace elements are a standard part of our feeding plan. The bees need it and they are a lot happier when we provide it. The cost is minimal, and the returns are significant, because we just don’t lose our hives anymore!

Our sharing has expanded not only regionally, but nationally and even internationally. The requests for our nutritional products grew to the point where we started packaging them and selling them to distributors and even retail chains that serviced beekeepers and their needs. Our objective is to get as many people using these principles as possible because the bees need it!

Through the years, beginning with a 9-year-old boy, there have been many beekeepers who were willing to share their hard-earned knowledge with me. I would repay them poorly if I didn’t share the lessons that I have learned and the many experiences I have been given. To that end, we also donate 5% of all our bee nutrition profits to Project APIS, a non-profit organization directed by both beekeepers and scientists, to fund and direct research designed to enhance the health and vitality of honeybee colonies.

If you want to know more about what we do and how we do it, we welcome your conversations. I love to talk about bees, especially with other beekeepers.

Martin James owns and operates Slide Ridge Honey in Mendon, Utah.

Harvesting Honey: Tips & Tricks for Efficient Extraction

By Perry & Beverly Riley

When I think about harvesting honey it brings me back to my childhood. When I was a small child I would stay with my grandparents for a week at a time. They lived on a small farm and were self-sufficient. They didn’t have electricity, so they heated and cooked with wood. I remember they had raspberries, and I would help pick with my grandmother. I thought I was doing a lot of work but I was probably more trouble than help.

After we picked the raspberries, she took them in the house and cleaned them, and then she cooked them on her woodstove to make jam. Then she put them in a glass jar. She melted beeswax and poured a thin layer on top, sealing it. Then she put a lid on it to keep varmints at bay. When we visited on Christmas my grandmother would take a knife and cut the wax off. She would put the jam on fresh-baked bread, and it was just as good as the day she canned it.

The honeybee and its cousin, the ant, are the only two insects that live all winter on their stored food. Just like my grandmother, the honeybee cans honey. Instead of putting their honey in a glass jar they make miniature six-sided, 4.9 mm containers out of wax. These are placed horizontally with the top tilted slightly upward.

The miniature containers fit snugly against each other and share sides. Instead of jars, we call them cells. All the cells together form what we call comb. They fill these cells with nectar and process it. If it is a brood chamber, they also put pollen in some of the cells. The honey they store for winter doesn’t have pollen in the comb. We place a smaller hive body on top of the brood hive body for the bees to put their winter storage in.

They process the honey they put in these cells, and then they cap it with wax just like my grandmother did. The amazing thing is that they do this without all the modern technology we have today.

The bees store their winter honey on top of the brood box in this smaller hive body called a honey super. They process the honey by drying it to 17-18 percent water. After they dry it, they cap it so it doesn’t get any more moisture.

It probably goes without saying that the trick of harvesting honey is to extract it without harming the precious workers. The first step is to remove the stored honey from the hive. The problem is that it is full of bees that have to be removed. There are several ways to do this.

If you have just a few hives, you can brush them off with a bee brush. If you have more hives, you can use a bee repellent. This repellent is sprayed on a fume pad placed on top of a honey super. You have to wait 4 or 5 minutes for it to take effect. You can purchase this from your honeybee supplier or you can purchase some imitation almond extract. You have to be careful about these repellents because some of them contain chemicals. I prefer the imitation almond extract because I think it is more natural and is also less expensive. Just put it undiluted in a spray bottle.

German beekeepers
German beekeepers blowing bees out of honey supers that were left after using the bee escape. Most of the bees land on the ground and have a tendency to go up your legs under your pants, and can sting. To prevent this, they wear rubber boots with their pant legs stuffed inside.

Another method is to use a bee escape. The bee escape itself has to be fastened to a special board with a hole in it. The bee escape board can be purchased from your local bee supplier.

Bee escapes are one-way doors that allow the bees to leave the supers but not return. The escape is placed beneath the supers of honey to be removed. Supers are usually free of bees within 5 to 24 hours. If they are left on too long the bees will figure out how to get through the one-way door.

This is by far the most effective way to remove bees from supers. As you take the honey supers off, there will be some bees left, but you can remove them with a leaf blower.

If you want specialty honey, you will have to remove the honey supers right after the nectar flow for your specialty honey is over. It probably will not all be capped, but we will explain this later. If you move the hive to another special nectar source the uncapped honey will contaminate the new nectar source. If you are not collecting specialty honey, it is better to wait and take the honey all off at once. When you take it off depends upon your climate.

In Indiana, it should be taken off the latter part of August so the bees will still have time to replace the honey for their winter stores. When you remove the honey supers, put a plastic sheet underneath them so honey doesn’t drip out. Some beekeepers make a special board to set the honey supers on. An extra top cover works very well. Just remember if you take too much honey off and they can’t replace it, they will not survive the winter.

Harvesting Honey 101

If you extract uncapped honey it will ferment and then you will have unhappy customers. You have a choice of taking the uncapped honey off or leaving it on. The very large beekeepers that have several hundred hives extract the capped and uncapped honey and put it in a large drying tank with rotating baffles and dry it until it reaches 17-18 percent water.

However, it is also possible for the small beekeeper to extract uncapped honey. You can do this by making a small, airtight drying room. Put your uncapped honey frames in honey supers and stack the supers so there’s airspace at the bottom of the boxes. A couple of two-by-fours under the bottom honey super is ideal. Then put a dehumidifier in the room, and use a refractometer to measure the water content in the uncapped cells until it reaches 17-18 percent water. To speed up the process you can also put a small fan on top of each stack.

To extract honey, remove the cap just like grandma removed the wax from the top of her jam. This can be done with a special uncapping knife.

Set the frame of honey on end and slowly move the knife back and forth while moving in a downward direction. They also make heated, electric uncapping knives.

harvesting honey
The screen on top of the 5-gallon pail is made especially to screen out wax and bee particles. It is available from most beekeeping suppliers.

If some of the cells are not full height, you can use a cappings scratcher. You will need a plastic container or tub with a board laid across the top to catch the cappings. Place a screen on top of the tub to let the honey drain through. Set the frame with the long side vertical on top of the board so the wax and some honey can fall into the plastic container. An uncapping tub set is available from bee catalogs such as Walter T. Kelley Co., but they are expensive for the small-scale beekeeper.

After the caps are removed, place the frames in an extractor. The size of the extractor determines the number of frames it can hold. The frames are placed in the extractor on a round tray fastened to a shaft. The shaft and tray are located inside a stainless steel drum. Equipment used to store and extract honey is made from stainless steel. The tray is spun, throwing the honey out of the cells onto the inside wall of the drum. In smaller extractors you extract one side at a time and then you have to turn them around.

Also, smaller extractors are usually operated by hand crank whereas larger extractors use an electric motor.

screening honey

Let the tray spin for about 5 minutes — it helps to have the room heated to at least 80 degrees so the honey will flow easier. Make sure the honey has been in the room for at least 24 hours.

The room should be tight enough to keep out the bees and other insects. The smell of honey will attract lots of bees and insects. Extractors run from a couple of frames to over 100 and cost from $100 to several thousand.

There is a drain on the bottom of the extractor with a shut-off valve. When you extract honey you have to have the valve open so the honey can drain out. There is a stainless double honey sieve that you can put on top of a 5-gallon pail. It is made to go under the extractor outlet. Removable coarse, then fine, screens filter out 95 percent of wax particles and honeybee parts. This is all that you need to filter your honey.

When you get done extracting honey, your extractor and all your equipment will have honey on it. The easiest way to clean up is to set it next to your hives and let the bees do it for you. They will do a better job than you can do, and they will place it back in their hives for winter use. It only takes a day or two.

This article appeared in the August 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Perry and Beverly Riley run Life of Riley Honey Farm in Terre Haute, Indiana, and are members of the Indiana Bee Association. The Rileys’ hives are maintained without chemicals and the bees produce honey from clover, buckwheat, alfalfa and wildflowers. For more information call 812-898-1385 or email riley.honey.farm@gmail.com.

Grow Native Plants for Bees

By Dr. Leo Sharashkin

The moment you get your first honeybees, you start noticing all the flowers around you and begin to ponder the potential plants you could grow to support pollinator health.

You become acutely aware of hives’ surroundings for a mile in every direction. This is the effective flight range of the bee—the distance she is prepared to travel to collect nectar, pollen, water and other necessities for her colony. This represents three square miles—2,000 acres of terrain—that the bees have at their disposal.

The Omniscient Bee

Using hundreds of scouts, the colony’s collective intelligence tracks in real time the location of all significant sources of nectar and pollen, their abundance, the exact times of day when a particular plant secretes nectar, and even its nutritional value. They know there’s a single basswood tree in bloom three-quarters of a mile south-southwest of their nest. They know the location of a small patch of buckwheat that you planted as a cover crop in your garden, and that they better get to it in the morning before the afternoon heat cuts the nectar flow. Foraging maps are updated daily, new blooms are promptly discovered, and fading flowers immediately abandoned.

Blazing star (Liatris)
Blazing star (Liatris) blooms late in the season when few other nectar sources are available.

When nectar is abundant, bees do not have to travel far from their hive. If forage is scarce, though, they can fly two miles (sometimes even farther) from the nest to feed themselves, procure food for their young, and store survival packs for the winter. In this case, we are talking about some 12 square miles, or 8,000 acres, that they rely upon for their livelihood.

Bees, of course, are not aware of any property lines.

As the Ukrainian beekeeper Illarion Kullanda put it in his Bees for Everyone (1882), “The bee enriches a keeper both rich and poor, for she never asks if the blossoms belong to her master or to a neighbor.” They still live in the world of freedom and plenty. All the fields and meadows and forests they can fly to are part of their domain, which they readily share with other creatures.

Bees will fearlessly defend their own nest from intrusion, but their “private ownership” ends with the walls of their hive. If a bee is visiting a flower and is disturbed by a bird, another insect, or a human, she will simply fly on to another bloom rather than striking back. Why fight when there is enough for everyone? To me, this lesson is just as valuable as the honey and wax I get from my bees.

From their knowledge of every corner of their kingdom comes bees’ great strength and, in our times, their great vulnerability. You see a few foragers dying in convulsions at the hive entrance and become concerned: did they visit some poisonous plant (of which there are a small number), or perhaps the neighbor sprayed something on his fields? Will this honey be safe for my children to eat? What can we do to help the bees? I keep hearing this question over and over again. It is heartwarming that so many people are concerned about the welfare of bees and other pollinators.

Fortunately, there is a good answer, and it is very important, because by helping the bees we can also help ourselves.

Fly for Your Life

Honeybees are an indicator species. Just as caged canaries that alert miners to the presence of deadly gases or rats that give sailors the first warning of a sinking ship, bees are a very sensitive gauge of ecosystem health.

I remember my uncle telling me as a boy to never fish in a stream where I couldn’t see “a happy crawdad family.” No crawdads meant something was seriously wrong with the water quality, indicating either industrial pollution or pesticide runoff from the fields (they were still using DDT back then).

Bees are indicator species
Bees are indicator species.

By being so intricately linked to the flowers over such a large area, bees can signal environmental issues better than any man-made equipment.

Many beekeepers, doctors and philosophers marvel at the ancient observation that what is good for the bees is also good for humans, including flowers, fresh air, sunshine, community, movement and all the healing products of the hive: honey, pollen, propolis (bee resin), beeswax and royal jelly.

Conversely, what damages bees (dampness, cold, inhumane treatment or pesticides) will be very detrimental to humans, too. This is why I would not deem it safe to live in a place where honeybees are not thriving.

It is a well-known fact that bees working only one floral source (e.g., an endless field of rape) become much more aggressive than colonies that have access to a wide variety of flowers.

This manifestation of anger is a sure indication that bees perceive lack of biodiversity as deeply unsettling. After all, biodiversity literally means “diversity of life.” When there is no diversity, life itself is in danger. I think every ecological farmer can relate to this on a very deep level as they witness it over and over in the field.

The toxic cocktails of agrochemicals that poison bees may only be one of the reasons for bees’ recent decline. Wild habitat loss and very low biodiversity in agricultural landscapes must also be having a major impact.

Bees are adapted to a mind-boggling diversity of flowering plants, and each source of nectar and pollen offers a unique mix of nutrients and other substances. When this diversity is absent, bees are bound to suffer. Imagine your diet suddenly reduced to only a couple of ingredients.

The early accounts of honeybees in America paint a picture of vigor and abundance. Brought over by European settlers, bees became more prosperous here than in the Old World—to the point that wild honey was so plentiful that there was little incentive to “keep” them. They were first seen in Illinois around 1800, and only 18 years later there was “more honey available than elsewhere in the world.”

In Missouri, a man could locate 30 new bee trees in a week. No wonder 19th-century authors talk about “seas of nectar” that the Lord instructed the bees to gather “to sweeten man’s life with honey and free mead.”

But this all-you-can-eat bonanza was extremely short-lived. A century later, the principal sources of nectar were clover and alfalfa—forage crops native to Eurasia. Today, on a per-acre basis, the United States has eleven times fewer hives than Europe, and up to three-fourths of the honey consumed in this country is imported.

Apiculture or Apiforestry?

Where has the old-time bounty gone? Just as in Europe, the emergence of hive beekeeping and dependence on agricultural nectar sources went hand in hand with the destruction of wild ecosystems that provided a virtually limitless supply of nectar from thousands of species of flowering plants. Basswood forests were logged out, meadows were converted to pasture or plowed up, and old-growth trees with spacious hollows for bee nests became exceedingly rare.

The agricultural landscapes that succeeded the primeval ecosystems lacked several key traits that are essential for honeybee survival and productivity. In northern climates, bees thrive in dense forests that protect nests from windchill. With this protection in place, tree beekeeping in medieval Russia extended as far north as Archangel, which is on the same latitude as Fairbanks, Alaska. But the thin-walled hives that modern beekeepers leave in the open to withstand winter winds means that bees now have trouble surviving even in much warmer climates.

Large Linden tree and meadow
Basswood (American Linden) forests

Secondly, monoculture fields and orchards have none of the continuity of nectar flow and pollen available in the wild. For example, in the Ozarks of southern Missouri, where I live, a broadleaf forest near a stream will have native plants in bloom continuously from early spring (redbuds, willows, wild plum, dandelions, maples, then oaks), through the summer (blackberry, sumac, basswood, blazing star), and into the fall (asters and goldenrods).

And even when it’s extremely dry and hot, we get honeydew honey from oaks and black walnuts. This of course is totally different from an orange orchard or a field of buckwheat, where you have a deluge of nectar over a two-week period and then nothing for the rest of the year.

Today’s beekeepers get around this problem by hauling their hives from place to place—either locally (a blueberry farm, then a clover field, then a wilderness area full of sumacs) or even across the country (California almond plantations, apple orchards in Washington, sunflowers in North Dakota, then Arizona for the winter).

But migratory beekeeping creates another host of problems. Thousands of bee colonies from all over the country converging on a plantation spread disease, get doused in pesticide and—their honey “robbed”—survive as best they can on mega-doses of sugar syrup.

Faced with the honeybee decline, what should we do? Should we be using “the best of science” to devise new chemical drugs to prop bees up and help them survive in the most unnatural of environments? Or should we restore living landscapes that would make migrating for our honey unnecessary, and return to the bees the resilience and health for which they were once famous? To me, this is the only sensible alternative.

Bee Pasture

So let’s plant some bee pastures. What plants should we seed? Would a 10-foot by 10-foot patch of buckwheat be enough for a hive or two?

When I started writing this article, I thought I would include descriptions of a dozen of my favorite honey plants with pretty pictures and encourage every grower to plant a border of wildflowers.

Bee visiting buckwheat flower
Bees love buckwheat flowers but thrive with variety.

What could be simpler? But I realized that if I did that, I would not be completely truthful with my readers. This is because, in many cases, the single best option is to allow ecosystems to revert to their semi-natural state.

One of my neighbors is an absentee landowner living in a large city. His pastureland has not been used or brush hogged for some 20 years, and this is where I get most of my honey! The luxurious mix of sumacs, prickly pear cacti, mints, thistles and other delicacies create a veritable honeybee paradise.

Not only that, but the great diversity of flowering plants in this semi-wild tract results in honey with such a rich and complex flavors that I sell it for $20 per pound, and I have my full year’s crop spoken for before the first bee gets out of the hive in the spring.

The most conservative of calculations show that these dry and rocky south-facing slopes would never offer nearly as much value to the owner if used for cattle pasture or hay.

Letting the land lie fallow or “unused” sounds almost like bad husbandry today and is often looked down upon. But, as an example, in 19th-century Russia, the long-rotation agriculture that allowed fields to revert to woody vegetation before being put into field crops was seen as a highly progressive method of restorative farming.

Plants for Bees: Which Species to Plant?

To decide which trees, shrubs and flowers you can plant, visit a natural spot or an old field abuzz with bees. Not only will it give you clear indication of what native plants thrive in your location, but you will have a readily available and free source of seeds for planting.

early-blooming redbud
The nectar of the early-blooming redbud fuels bee colony buildup in the spring.

Plants of the same species in different locations can produce very different nectars, so no written source will ever be completely reliable. For example, I’ve never seen a single bee visit the blooms of my catalpa trees or even black locusts, but farther north these are important nectar producers.

There are several excellent sources of information on American nectar plants. The basic plant list, by geographic region, can be found in USDA Agriculture Handbook 335: Beekeeping in the United States. Frank Pellett’s American Honey Plants is another wonderful reference that includes not only plant descriptions but also plant listings by state. Both of these sources can be downloaded for free from my website.

The task of selecting the right plants from hundreds of available species is often daunting. Lest the reality be bleaker than the pretty pictures in nursery catalogs, let us consider several points to help you choose the right plants to best suit your bees’ needs.

Native Linden tree flowers
The American Linden tree is great for native bees thanks to its flowers.

A single bee colony deploys over 100,000 foragers over the season, and each forager can visit up to 3,000 blooms a day. Fedor Lazutin, one of Europe’s leading natural beekeepers and author of Keeping Bees with a Smile, planted up to two acres of wildflowers per hive.

But if land is at a premium, shrubs and trees are the way to go. A single mature basswood tree can produce a gallon of honey in a good season. The area that you have to plant, of course, depends on the surrounding vegetation.

If you border a wilderness area with an abundance of flowering plants, you may not need to plant additional forage, but if your five acres are surrounded by fields under conventional row crops, you will want to provide your bees as much forage on your land as possible.

Plants for Bees: An ‘A’ for Bee Effort

Consider the amount of effort that you want to devote to planting trees and flowers. I was once driving to a conference and daydreaming about what I would do with my life if I had no mortgage bills to worry about. Planting trees for bees was the answer. I got so excited with this vision that I missed my exit.

Many types of trees, however, are relatively difficult to establish; in my location, basswood would require individual cages against deer for three years and irrigation during the first two. Some species are much less demanding, though: planting a stream bank of willows comes down to spreading a weed barrier and sticking cuttings through it.

Biannual Viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare)
Bee-friendly Viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare) flower

Annuals, of course, require yearly replanting, but you can cut that effort in half by planting a mixture of annuals and biannuals. During the first year, the annual plant produces nectar while the biannual puts down roots and gets established. In the second year, the annual is gone and the biannual produces nectar. I gleaned this technique from Lazutin. His favorite mixture in Zone 4 consists of phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia), the annual native to California, and viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare), a prodigiously productive biannual from Europe.

Many shrubs offer a ragged walkaway alternative: you plant a root cutting of sumac (Rhus glabra) in the spring and it forms a huge coppice that occupies all of the nearby sunny space.

Female plants yield lots of nectar, and males produce loads of pollen. According to John Harvey Lovell’s Honey Plants of North America, “strong colonies [working sumac] will bring in 20 pounds of honey during an ideal day, and will store from 40 to 100 pounds each.”

Sumac is very easy to propagate, is highly ornamental with its scarlet foliage and berry clusters, spreads easily, grows great on poor rocky soil and could not care less about drought. The berries come in large, easy-to-harvest clusters and are intensely sour due to the malic acid they contain. Native Americans used them for healing and making lemonade, and we do as well. The honey has a wonderful citrusy flavor with overtones of lemon zest.

The good effort-saving news about nectar plants is that doing nothing is often the best way to establish them. Stop mowing your lawn, and it will be a carpet of dandelions in only two years’ time. Don’t brush hog your unused land, and five years later you’ll have eight-foot tall sumacs.

In the meantime, you can plant perennial flowers. Many mints spread by their roots and establish wonderfully fragrant low-maintenance patches. Horsemint (Mentha longifolia), while not an American native, is much adored by bees, and just walking through it would qualify as aromatherapy.

California native annual phacelia flower
California native annual phacelia

Finally, while planting trees that will become important sources of nectar in 20 or 30 years may seem impractical, every time I walk through a 150-year-old basswood alley I feel thankful that economic calculus is not the only driving force behind human actions. If anything, we need to start early. Imagine if school students devoted 10 percent of their biology curriculum to planting trees.

Plant for Nectar Continuity

Bees can harvest very large amounts of honey when there is continuous nectar flow from early spring till autumn. If the hive’s 50,000-strong workforce has no nectar to gather, not only is the potential crop is lost, but reserves start to dwindle as idle workers consume them mid-season. To save honey from being eaten by bees, many beekeepers pull it before the dearth period (say, dry flowerless August) and give bees sugar syrup.

Salvia flowers
Sage (salvia spp.) is easy to grow and a boon to bees.

Another alternative would be to plant additional bee forage to cover the gaps in existing honey flow. Annuals can be planted several times at four- or six-week intervals, or you can select plants that bloom and re-seed several times during the season. Borage is one of these. If you have plentiful nectar available during the spring and early summer but few natural sources later in the season, plant late-blooming species such as asters.

Multipurpose Plants

Many agricultural crops are good nectar producers. In fact, honeybees contribute more to world agriculture through pollination than by their production of honey and wax.

If you have a diversified farm with a variety of crops, you are probably already providing sufficient bee forage, to the great benefit of your crops. Buckwheat, rape, mustard, corn, fruit trees, berry bushes, beans, cucurbits, herbs and forage crops are all sources of nectar and pollen. You can also consider honey plants when planting a green manure, a windbreak, or a future source of firewood and timber.

Plants for Bees: Native vs. Non-native

Today’s agriculture is cosmopolitan, and most crops are not native to America. There is no arguing that clover, alfalfa, sainfoin, viper’s bugloss and borage (all European natives) are powerful and beautiful honey plants.

Borage plant/herb flower is great for bees
Borage flowers (Borago officinalis) keep bees happy.

Whenever I choose plants specifically for honeybees, I try to give preference to species native to where I live. This way the plantings also benefit a myriad of native pollinator species, and you get to taste honeys that are unique to your locale.

In Michigan I would plant fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium), in California sages (Salvia spp.) and phacelia, and in Pennsylvania tulip poplars (Liriodendron tulipifera) and American basswood (Tilia Americana). If I had a waterlogged spot along a stream in Missouri, I would plant buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis).

There is something about buttonbush that I can describe with only one word: Love. It fills the space with a sweet tropical scent; the white globes of ornate flowers shine like stars; the working of bees shows a glimpse of a world without war. And I come to understand Illarion Kullanda’s words: “Look at all the forests and orchards and meadows and fields overflowing with sweetness and joy! This sweetness and joy are yours without industry or expense. The only thing asked of you is that you freely take it without destroying the source.”

Dr. Leo Sharashkin lives on a forest homestead in the Ozarks in southern Missouri where he catches swarms, propagates nectar plants and keeps bees in a variety of horizontal hives. He is editor of Keeping Bees With a Smile: A Vision and Practice of Natural Apiculture by Fedor Lazutin—a comprehensive resource on natural laid-back beekeeping, available from Acres U.S.A. Two other books in the same series, Growing Vegetables With a Smile and Growing Fruit With a Smile, by Nikolay Kurdyumov, are also available from Acres U.S.A. Keeping Bees in Horizontal Hives is also a great resource for those interested in natural beekeeping. For more information on horizontal hives, free hive plans and nectar plant information, visit Dr. Leo’s website. This article appeared in the April 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Healthy Pollination: Horizontal Hives Support Natural Beekeeping

By Jill Henderson

Healthy pollination is the goal almost every beekeeper starts with, but it is often easier said than done.

If you have ever dreamed of keep­ing bees but found the process com­plicated, expensive, or the potential for losing your investment to disease and pests all too real, then you have never met Dr. Leo Sharashkin. He is a prominent wild bee enthusiast, edu­cator and apiarist who practices an ancient method of catching and keep­ing wild bees in specially designed horizontal hives.

If you have had the good fortune to meet Sharashkin or to hear him speak to a room full of enthusiastic beekeep­ers or the crowd that inevitably gath­ers around his Horizontal Hive booth at growers’ conferences across the country, you already know that his knowledge of bees is boundless and the methods he uses to keep them, truly inspiring. Whether you are a budding beekeeper or an experienced apiarist, you can keep happy and productive bees with less work and money than you ever imagined pos­sible and do so in a sustainable way.

A bee pollinates a flower
A bee pollinates a flower.

Sharashkin came to the United States from Russia and studied at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where he earned his Ph.D. in agro­forestry. He currently lives and works on his rural homestead in the south-central Missouri Ozarks with his wife and four children.

Sharashkin’s interest in sustainable agriculture began as a child growing up in Russia where his family, like many others, raised much of their own fruits, vegetables and honey on small plots of land in the countryside known as dachas. As part of his re­search he completed an agricultural production study showing that gar­deners and small farmers produced a whopping 53 percent of food in post-Soviet Russia on these tiny plots of land and did so with less inputs and labor than large commercial farms.

Sharashkin has edited several books including; Keeping Bees With a Smile: A Vision and Practice of Natural Apiculture by his friend and mentor, Fedor Lazutin; Growing Vegetables With a Smile; Growing Fruit With a Smile by Nikolay Kurdyumov; and Keeping Bees in Horizontal Hives: A Complete Guide to Apiculture by Georges de Layens. In addition to giving multiple presentations on natural beekeeping each year, Sharashkin conducts an intensive two-day beekeeping work­shop near his home where he runs his business, Horizontal Hive.

Pollination Progressions

The tradition of beekeeping goes back into antiquity. No one really knows how long mankind has been tapping natural sources of wild hon­ey or exactly when the first human thought to keep bees close at hand. Today, the majority of commercial and recreational apiarists in the Unit­ed States keep their bees in classic vertical Langstroth hives that consist of a series of square boxes stacked on top of each other. The bottom two boxes in a Langstroth hive are home to the queen bee and her brood. Be­tween this and the next set of boxes, which are known as honey supers, is a thin mesh screen called a bee excluder, which prevents the queen from entering and “fouling” honey stores by laying eggs in those frames.

Sharashkin suggests that Langstroth hives are only good for “migratory commercial beekeepers” because they are relatively lightweight and can be stacked and moved on flatbed trucks across the country where the bees are used to pollinate agricultural fields and orchards. While Langstroth hives allow access to the bees, the apiarist can only open one box at a time from the top down, which creates stress on the bees and requires a lot of heavy lifting by the beekeeper. Sharashkin doesn’t use Langstroth hives and doesn’t suggest them to recreational or small-scale beekeepers. Instead, he prefers to work with horizontal hives, which he feels offer a more natural arrangement for the bees.

Large honeycomb
Large honeycomb from a horizontal hive.

“In a horizontal hive there is one long box with all the frames posi­tioned at one level. This means you have access to all the frames at once and can work the exact part of the hive where you need to, which means less disturbance for the bees and no heavy lifting for you. Horizontal hives also require much less skill and experience from the beekeeper. In the vertical stack it is the beekeeper’s responsibility to know when the bees are ready to expand, and this work has to be done on time and very care­fully, and the colony can be set back significantly by giving them too much volume that they can’t keep, protect, or fully assimilate. In a horizontal hive, the whole volume of the box is accessible to the bees at all times, so they can expand at their own rate. This means that a small or weak colony can grow at its own pace, and big colony can expand much faster. In either case, this is a decision made by the bees and not the beekeeper, which removes yet another operation from your to-do list when working with your bees.”

Sharashkin points out another ben­efit of horizontal hives, which are meant to be stationary and not moved from place to place. Because of this, hives can be built with materials that match both the climate of a particular area and the environmental needs of the bees.

“The Langstroth hive, with its three-quarters of an inch walls, is used all over the United States in cli­mates as different as Florida or upstate Michigan with minus 40 degree win­ters. It shouldn’t be like that at all. In colder climates you need hives with thicker walls and good insulation in the walls. You don’t want to insulate Langstroth hives with heavier wood because it would make them heavier still. But because the horizontal hive isn’t going anywhere, you can insulate the hive right, giving the bees protec­tion from the cold of winter and the heat of summer, which decreases the stress on the bees.”

Sharashkin sums up the advantages of using horizontal hives: “There’s no heavy lifting, making it bee-gentle and beekeeper-gentle at the same time. In a horizontal hive you have access to all of the frames at once, minimizing disturbance, and bees have access to the whole volume of the hive so they can grow at their own pace. With a horizontal hive, it doesn’t require the skill and years of experience to learn exactly when to expand the brood nest, because the bees are doing that for you.”

When I asked Sharashkin a ques­tion about his method of keeping bees, he quickly corrected me by saying, “I would like to stress that this is not my method, because the approaches I use are time-tested and have been used by beekeepers for thousands of years, so we are talking about practices that are very ancient.”

Indeed, keeping wild bees is not a new idea, and horizontal hives are not a new invention, but rather, a tidy take on natural bee trees and bee gums that many cultures around the world have used to keep wild bees within easy reach. And like Sharashkin, early apiarists didn’t fool around with their bees much, either — they simply let them do what bees naturally do best. Unless there is something noticeably wrong with a hive, Sharashkin says that he generally only opens his hives once in the spring and again in the fall. Repeatedly disturbing the hive is a major source of stress that weakens the colony and leads to problems such as increased susceptibility to parasites and diseases, and an increase in ag­gressive behavior.

Local Pollinators

For many, the most captivating aspect of Sharashkin’s approach to beekeeping is that he relies entirely on catching local swarms of wild bees to populate his hives using catch boxes baited with propolis and lemongrass oil. When asked about the difference between wild bees and those that most people purchase when starting a hive, Sharashkin explains, “The Euro­pean honeybee is not native to North America, but was brought here by European settlers and became natu­ralized. There is tremendous variation in the traits in the different races and strains of wild honeybees depending on where they live. They need to be adapted to the particular conditions of the area, including temperatures in the summer and winter, and even the blooming patterns of the local vegetation, to survive. So instead of having just one honeybee all over its native range, we have populations of honeybees that have their own unique traits and being adapted to the local conditions makes all the difference to their health and survival. Commercial bees are selected and bred for maxi­mum honey production, gentleness and other traits that are beneficial to the beekeeper, but not the bees.”

According to Sharashkin, the prob­lem with purchasing bees from a breeder is multifaceted. If you want to keep bees in Michigan and the bees you purchased came from Texas, they will not be adapted to long, cold win­ter conditions and may struggle or die without a lot of intervention on your part. On the other hand, feral honey­bees are already adapted to your spe­cific local weather conditions, have survived in the wild, are naturally hardy and have already figured out how to deal with pests, diseases and predators. They also have an innate sense of when to go into or break out of winter hibernation, the right time to begin egg-laying and how much honey they need and how to allocate it in order to survive the winter.

A bee on a wild rose
A wild prairie rose with a with a small wild bee collecting pollen… close-up..

He also talked about the stress that bees go through when shipped across the country, saying that this can impact the queen’s overall fertility, which is necessary to build a strong colony as soon as possible.

“Matching the strain of bee to your local conditions is really a question of life and death for your colony. If you are not matching these, then you will have to rectify this mismatch with extra management.”

After hearing Sharashkin talk about the superiority of wild bees, I couldn’t help but wonder how he knew for sure that the bees he catches are really wild and not overbred European bees absconding from a nearby hive.

“When swarms emerge from a hive they usually travel a mile or less to find their new home,” he said. “I control whether I catch really wild swarms or bees from someone else’s hives by not placing my swarm catching boxes within 3 miles of any known apiary.” He went on to say that even if he did catch a swarm of traditionally bred bees that they would still be superior to packaged bees. If that swarm sur­vived and were kept using a natural method, the queen would mate with wild drones and the colony as a whole would slowly transition into a natural­ized variety and become “local” over several years’ time. Sharashkin calls bees like this survival stock. Yet, not all producers want what’s best, but rather, they just want more, faster.

“The problem with beekeeping and agriculture at large is that we are too impatient. We don’t want to wait a few seasons for nature to pro­duce a resilient variety, we want it straightaway and many are prepared to pay the price for having less than optimal stock, whether it be animals, bees, or the plants that we put into our farm.” But for the patient beekeeper, catching and keeping wild swarms naturally is not only easier, more hu­mane and healthier for bees, the envi­ronment and humans, but ultimately much more successful and rewarding.

When asked how he convinced traditional beekeepers to switch to a more natural method, Sharashkin an­swered frankly, saying that he doesn’t have time to convince anyone of the superiority of the natural approach he uses because there is such a tremen­dous interest from those who already want to adopt a more sustainable way.

“I’m simply providing practical in­formation to those who already know that they are not going to feed their bees sugar water or use known human carcinogens inside their hives to try to control diseases — contaminating wax and honey at the same time. So, for those who tend commercially, the best argument is not anything I can say, but just seeing this other method at work.”

The other drawback for big, com­mercial producers is that natural bee­keeping doesn’t produce as much honey. Sharashkin harvests roughly 20 pounds of honey from each hive, leaving the rest for the bees. Although that isn’t enough to satisfy commercial beekeepers, it is more than enough for most recreational or self-sufficient apiarists. Depending on how many hives you have, the excess honey you harvest could be worth a small fortune to those who appreciate real, pure, unadulterated honey harvested from bees raised in a humane and natural way without sugar or chemicals of any kind.

“Increased production comes at the greater expense of management. If a colony is forced to produce the maximum amount of honey possible, it will also be out of balance in terms of pests and parasites. If you grow your colony too big for the sake of maximum honey production then it becomes like a monoculture, which is a breeding ground for all types of pests and diseases. So, by limiting my honey harvest to 20 pounds per hive, I am able to keep it at the natural level where the harvest is not as big of a stress for the colony and where I can obtain this production with minimal management and effort.”

Sharashkin is an enthusiastic and ear­nest proponent of natural beekeeping. His research, experi­ence and passion for preserving the genetic diversity of local natu­ralized bees and the environment in which they live is highly contagious — even for non-beekeepers. The honey he produces in his beautiful and functional horizontal hives is of the highest quality and of superb and complex flavor because the bees have complete access to and free-choice of a huge array of flowering native plants throughout their forage range, not just one or two monocrops like clover and alfalfa.

Sharashkin makes keeping bees in a way that closely mimics nature’s designs as easy and realistic as any beekeeper could imagine, only open­ing his stationary hives two or three times per season at most.

“I open the hive in the spring, making sure the hive is alive and well and add more frames for the bees to store honey in,” he said. “Then, if the colony looks good, I basically do not touch them until October or early November when I pull the frames with hon­eycomb, extract the honey and put the frames back in the hive. If I see that a colony is not doing well I may open the box in the middle of summer, but this is more of an excep­tion than a rule. I keep telling people that keeping bees is simpler than grow­ing vegetables, because with vegetables you need to plant the seed, water it, mulch it and protect it from pests and deer and so on. It’s a lot of effort on your part. But with hon­eybees — because they are still a wild animal — you can put them in a hive and leave them alone for the entire season, and if they are worth their salt, they will still be there at the end of the season with some surplus honey to share with you.”

Jill Henderson is an artist, author and organic gardener. She is edi­tor of Show Me Oz (showmeoz.wordpress.com), a weekly blog fea­turing articles on gardening, seed saving, nature ecology, wild edible and medicinal plants and culinary herbs. She has written three books: The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, A Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country and The Garden Seed Saving Guide.

This issue first appeared in the May 2017 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.