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Bee Natural

Nov. 19, 2010

Order honeybees now for organic gardens to be abuzz in spring

By Jim PathFinder Ewing

As winter approaches, and Thanksgiving looms, it seems an unlikely time to consider something so quintessentially “summer” as honeybees, but it’s time to order them, if you plan to start a hive next spring, or replenish colonies that are lost.

If you grow organically (and even if you grow conventionally, whether a garden or farm field), honey bees are essential to pollination.

For folks who are dabbling with an organic garden in the backyard, there are actually small “English Garden” hives that can do the job of supplementing local pollinators.

I’m skeptical of “organic” labeling with honey. A bee collects nectar and pollen 1 1/2 miles in every direction from the hive. You would have to certify that no one with a 3-mile radius is using chemicals to kill weeds or bugs or spray their crops, flowers, lawns, etc. Unless you live out in the absolute middle of nowhere with no human beings around, that’s impossible. So, maybe USDA-certified organic honey is wishful thinking. You’d have to check the location.

I messed with bees for commercial production back in the early 1980s and 1990s and have only dabbled with it since. A lot has changed, with new imported insects that prey on honeybees, as well as the unexplained Colony Collapse Disorder that causes hives to die (possibly because of agricultural or commercial insecticides or, some say, the Bt maize cultivar in genetically modified corn; or neonicotinoid-coated corn seeds; no one knows).

To combat the array of threats, most commercial beekeepers today use antibiotics and pesticides in their hives. Many also pasteurize the honey and strain it and may even add coloration or agents to thicken it or thin it for easy pouring and appearance. It’s all legal under U.S. product labeling laws as “natural.” This is one true instance where, in my opinion, it pays to “buy local” and ask how it’s made. (Plus, there are the health benefits of local honey with local pollens to help people with allergies.)

If you want to truly go natural, then only buy “raw” honey that’s chemically and additive free, that has not been strained and has not been pasteurized. It’s available locally or online, if you look for it.

There’s been a movement in recent years for beekeepers to go chemically free, or “barefoot,” practicing what’s called Natural Beekeeping. This requires using what’s called an Integrated Pest Management system, or IPM, which is a fancy way of saying “growing organic,” only in this instance, with bees. The theory behind IPM is that a healthy bee colony can fight off any threat with just a little help, and that help is chemically free.

For example, to fight the varroa mite, instead of using pesticides, you use a screen board for the hive bottom and “poof” the bees every once in a while with (organic) powered sugar. The mites can’t hold on to the bee with the slippery sugar and fall off through the screen to the ground, where they die. The bees lick the sugar off each other and use it in their honey making (free lunch!).

IPM also encourages the use of nontraditional hives, such as “top bar hives,” called Kenya hives (because they were used in Africa in the 1970s for their ease of use in impoverished areas). Or, if using what is considered the standard Langstroth hives, one may order smaller cell foundations for the bees’ honeycombs.

It’s important also, in IPM, to order bees that have not been raised with chemicals, and not use an existing comb that has been used with chemicals; or, because of chemical loading, the bees will be overwhelmed by disease and parasite outbreaks once the chemicals are removed. Also, only order bees that have been bred for mite-resistance, such as Caucasian, Carniolan or Russian hybrids.

One chemical-free apiary I’ve dealt with is BeeWeaver Apiaries in Navasota, Texas: http://www.beeweaver.com. But there are a growing number of chemically free suppliers of bees. You really need to order now, if you want bees to be sent to you in the spring. When the flowers start blooming, supplies of bees disappear fast.

Bees are great for the garden, and the major suppliers, like Dadant and Brushy Mountain, offer beginners kits. Unless you’re handy with tools, you’d be wise to purchase the finished and painted boxes. Also, if you mess with bees, expect to get stung no matter how much you use smokers or bee-resistant clothing.

The good side: beekeepers have remarkably low rates of arthritis, and honey, propolis and the like is excellent health food, perhaps the oldest raw natural and complete food in human history. Honeybees originated in the Middle East and are mentioned often in the Bible. They are not native to America (called “the white man’s fly” by Native Americans), but they are now vital to farming. For example, one study with cucumbers showed that fruit production increased 400 percent compared to plots without bees. It’s believed that if bees weren’t trucked to the almond farms in California, the industry would collapse.

Keeping bees is a wonderful hobby (though it can easily become an obsession), and having one or two hives near the garden is great joy. Around ShooFly Farm, I love to watch “our girls” work, and each year we plant some crops just for them!

On the Web

Miss. Beekeepers Association: http://www.mshoneybee.org

Great blog on bees by a Master Keeper in Atlanta (with Miss. relatives): http://beekeeperlinda.blogspot.com

Dadant beekeeping supplies: http://www.dadant.com

Brushy Mtn. bee supplies & English Garden hives: http://www.brushymountainbeefarm.com

Integrated Pest Management, Cornell University: http://www.nysipm.cornell.edu

Kenya hives (explanation) : http://www.beekeeping.org/articles/us/ktbh.htm

Some Kenya top-bar hive plans: http://www.ccdemo.info/GardenBees/KTBH.html

Are you a beek? Check out our beeks tweets on Twitter: @OrganicWriter

good reads

Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture by Ross Conrad (Chelsea Green, 2007)

Beekeeping: A Practical Guide by Richard Bonney (Storey Publishing, 1993)

Contact Jim Ewing  on Twitter @OrganicWriter or @EdiblePrayers, or Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc.