Natural Beekeeping

Ever since I got bees, everyone has been giving me books on beekeeping as birthday or Christmas presents, but is was still a lucky coincidence that two books on natural beekeeping arrived on my desk around the same time last autumn.

The first one was written by a friend of mine, Tim Rowe, who keeps about 100 hives near Bantry and has been keeping bees since his teens. Recently self published by Tim, the book, entitled “The Rose Hive Method, Challenging conventional beekeeping”, explains Tim’s system of beekeeping, based on the “Rose hive”, which he devised. I was already somewhat familiar with this system, as I had gotten my bees from Tim, but I learnt a lot more about it while reading through this book.

The second one, entitled “The Barefoot beekeeper, low cost, low impact natural beekeeping for everyone” is by P.J. Chandler, a proponent of the Top Bar Hive system (TBH), about which I knew nothing before I read this book.
Reading the two books side by side certainly helped me clarify my views on what natural, sustainable beekeeping really is about.

For a start, they are many striking similarities between the two books.
Both authors are clearly passionate about bees, about the need for more bees and more beekeepers, and about the need for a change in conventional beekeeping practices.

Both agree that “beekeeping shouldn’t be just about producing a surplus of honey” but should place the welfare of the bees above short sighted commercial imperatives. Both vehemently condemn the widespread practice of feeding sugar to the bees (except of course in dire emergencies), and advocate instead leaving the bees a comfortable surplus of honey for the winter (what’s left of it can be taken from the bees in the spring anyway, after they have started foraging again).

Both books advocate minimum interference with the bees, based on the premise that bees know what they are doing and that the job of the beekeepers is just to make sure that they are happy and healthy; and the authors have somewhat similar positive views on swarming, with both books offering alternative methods of swarm control.

They also both agree that the use of preformed workers cell size foundation sheets is not such a great idea, as it results in an unnaturally low number of drone cells, and therefore of drones, which, Tim points out, is not without consequences for the genetic health of bees, while P.J. Chandler remarks that wax which is imported in the hives might contain unwanted chemicals, and also costs a lot more that letting the bees build their own combs. While the TBH system practically precludes the use of foundation sheets, Tim advocates using frames with just a narrow foundation strip at the top.

Both Tim and P.J. agree that damp, rather than cold, is a problem for beekeepers in our part of the world, and advocate good ventilation over good insulation, with Tim going as far as saying that “cold in the winter is good for the bees”.

But most importantly, both books challenge the widely accepted idea that the “modern” beehive (invented in 1852) cannot be improved upon, and point out to a number of its short comings. And both propose a new type of hive as a basis for an alternative system of beekeeping.
Tim offers his own Rose hive design, a movable-frame hive based on the National hive, but with only one size of box, while P.J. Chandler is a proponent of self-built Top Bar Hives very similar to the ones used widely in the tropics. The main advantage of Tim’s system over conventional bee hives is that having only one size of box allows for a far more flexible, “bee friendly” approach than the traditional brood box and supper system. Tim’s hive management system also prohibits the use of queen excluders.

Tim actually acknowledges Top Bar Hives as an improvement over the traditional hive, but points out that they too have a number of drawbacks: they make it very difficult to extend hives past a certain point, and they make extraction and even inspection more difficult that they need to be.

Before offering his Top Bar Hives as the perfect solution, P.J. Chandler muses that any modern movable-frame hives could be used for natural beekeeping “simply by ceasing to use foundation sheets and removing obstruction like queen excluders”… which is actually what Tim advocates in his book. P.J. Chandler does however point out that modern hives are complicated to build (and therefore expensive) and that they are more difficult to clean (a problem for which Tim’s system of hive management offers a solution).

So to conclude, which book, and which method, would I personally recommend?
Well, it depends.

If you are already keeping bees in conventional hives and are interested in keeping them more naturally, or if you want to keep a number of hives, Tim’s system is more practical. His book even includes a section on converting from National hives to Rose hives, which is relatively easy as they have exactly the same foot print. As I see it, the main problem with the Rose hive system is that these hives are more difficult to build and, although Tim’s book contains plans for Rose hives and advice on how to build them, unless you are a skilled carpenter with a well equipped workshop, you will probably end up spending money buying hives. Building a top bar hive, on the other hand, can be done by anyone with basic carpentry skills and tools, and the TBH system would therefore be perfect for someone starting from scratch on a tight budget, and intending to keep just one or two hives as naturally as possible. However, I suspect that for anyone with more that two or three hives, the TBH system would become difficult to manage, particularly because honey cannot be extracted from the combs by centrifugal means, and, as P.J. himself puts it “pressing honey out of combs is a messy, tiresome business…”. He suggests persuading customers of the benefits of honey in the comb. Having tried it (I haven’t got an extractor yet), I am not entirely convinced, and in any case, being the proud owner of three Rose hives, I have already made my choice.
But whichever system you ultimately choose, both books are well worth reading by anyone with an interest in keeping bees naturally.

For more information about Natural beekeeping, see Tim Rowe’s site, beekeepinginireland.com and P.J. Chandler’s site, biobees.com

Written by Christophe Mouze for Organic Matters Magazine

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