Integrating Beekeeping with Permaculture
Insects and wildlife are an important part of a permaculture design. Without them your design will not be complete, the forces will not be in balance like the Jedi without Darth Wader.
Bees particularly have outputs we all can enjoy, even some vegans are bending the rules for honey and I am sure cavemen were enjoying the honey during palaeontologic times, you know what I mean bullet proof coffee lovers. Oh did I mention that most bees also have a light sabre.
A bee colony consists of a queen or two, female workers and male drones. This is a very narrow view of a complete system though. It is nowhere near a complete definition of a colony. There are also 8000 type of yeast, mould, fungi, and bacteria as well as 170 other insects and parasites that lives with the greater bee colony. Some of the relationships in the hive are symbiotic too, most of them opportunistic though. Who doesn’t like honey? :-D
My topbar hive is also home to an ant colony. I didn’t see the queen yet but they certainly know the heated part of the hive and move their eggs there in winter. Luckily, they are between the bars and the roof and not inside the hive. I saw some small hive beetles and some cockroaches too. The bees deal with all these given that their immune system and defences are strong.
A bee colony is a complete system which sustains the holistic hive with its temperature and humidity control, disease and spoilage control, reproduction, social nature of the works in the hive like tending the youngs, feeding the queen, male drones and larvae, cleaning and defending the hive, producing the wax, maintaining the comb system, meticulous recording of pollen and nectar flow times of flowers and trees, stacking the food where they need most, communicating the foraging resources etc. etc.
When this system fiddled by mankind, things go wrong. First Father Langstroth invented the movable frames which changed the thermodynamics of the combs. Then the foundation comb mankind given to bees dictated the comb cell size. Mankind told them to take up rectangular boxes as nests without enough thickness on the walls; they couldn’t survive harsh winters or hot summers. We now have HDPE plastic combs with taps for them that mankind not aware the implications for bees yet down the line in 100 years. The comb is the data storage for bees. Same type of pollens stored in same cells given that the combs are not changed and the bees figure out the flowering times based on what resources they have depleted.
Mankind is effectively ruining the bees big time and made them rely on chemicals, foundation comb, artificial food, HFCS syrup and single type pollen for food that comes with monoculture, transportation from places to places for pollination services and if this is not enough, the neo-nicotinoid based chemicals used in agriculture causing colony collapse disorder (CCD) where entire colony disappears into thin air leaving the brood and honey resources behind which they usually protect with their lives.
Agricultural chemicals and even the weed killer glyphosate used in the cities by the councils and municipalities comes into the hive with pollen and nectar. These start building up in the comb’s wax. After a while it becomes unbearable for the bees to stay in that death box and they either die or leave and die.
We basically let them lost their sustainability.
If we follow the 3 principles of permaculture, Earth care, people care and fair share;
1- We need to care for the bees as they were existing even before the apes walking upright. They are one of the oldest creatures of this planet.
2- We need to care for people who cares for the bees doing right things for the benefit of the bees. Bees are the ones actually caring for people though. If you try to buy honey from a natural beekeeper, you are supporting the bees. If you buy from supermarket, god knows where the money goes.
3- We should be grateful that bees are sharing their bounty with us. If we build designs in our living areas integrating the bees and provide them places they can live in peace that would be best. This could either be a little box for native bees, some sort of insect hotel or a nicely insulated hive where we can be partners in life.
Any hive type; be it Langstroth, Topbar, Warre, Perone, Flow or other variations can be used towards a more holistic and natural approach given that you let the bees to be bees naturally. What matters is your relationship with the bees not the equipment you use.
Starting with the brood chamber; that would be the first box on vertical hives and first 10 bars on horizontal hives. This part should be declared as the sacred part of the hive and should not be handled by the beekeeper under any circumstances. This is the uterus of the hive where they grow babies, stack their winter resources and gather together to go through the winter, warming the brood and the queen.
I have a Langstroth and a horizontal topbar hive. Langstroth has 2 boxes dedicated to bees without frames. I’ve put some cross sticks in it and the bees built their nest based on their specifications. I never open these two boxes. My topbar hive also has a brood chamber consists of about 15 bars. I never touch to these parts. This setup allows a better wintering for the bees as they move between the combs easily because the combs are built in a somewhat circular shape.
Second is the food resources for winter. Bees eat honey and pollen not sugary water or soy protein. We have to make sure that there is enough honey left for their wintering in the hive. After the harvest, I remove the top box which is a Flow, put the roof back on with good insulation and give back about 2 litres of honey to bees. Reduce the entrance so that mice cannot get in and leave them till the beginning of spring. Whatever honey remained that we didn’t consume goes back to bees in the beginning of spring because this is the time bees start foraging but there is not enough around and also cold snaps happen here and there causes colony deaths.
Third is the humidity and temperature of the hive should be protected at all costs. A natural beekeeper should only open the hive once or twice a year to add an extra super on top or to harvest. For that reason, I like the horizontal topbar hives as they allow me to harvest excess honey without releasing the humidity and temperature which the bees worked hard for it.
I never harvest pollen, propolis, royal jelly or wax from the hive. Harvested pollen is not really digestible by human. Propolis has got good properties but harvesting requires extra equipment. Royal jelly is another industry on its own right. You won’t be producing honey if you are producing royal jelly and it requires special queen cups and lots of labour to extract. All these products requires interference with the colony’s inner workings which is not good for the bees.
I removed some pollen in its comb for medicinal purposes, it works with the hay fever at certain times as it is half digested by bacteria there. I have also used a small piece of discarded larvae in its comb to make a yogurt starter.
Don’t forget that we also need to support the foraging resources around and do more guerrilla gardening. Especially target plants that are flowering in different times. If we can distribute the resources to 6 months during spring and summer, bees will have more opportunity to be alive and well.