29 Feb 2012

Why I like beekeeping

A beautiful short video from Megan Paska, a NY beekeeper, expressing her passion for beekeeping. This reflects the views of so many 'beeks' practicing the Natural approach. Seems she's using a Kenyan top bar hive here.

Thanks to Warwick for passing this to the group.

Made by Hand / No 3 The Beekeeper from Made by Hand on Vimeo.

27 Feb 2012

Neonicotinoids (system pesticides), CCD and bees

A 25 min video (news report) from the USA, with Dan Rather . . .

And a book on a related topic 'Systemic insecticides - a disaster in the making'.

And a new UK based charity, Small blue marble, dedicated to seeking independent insecticide safety research.

21 Feb 2012

Legal obligations

A number of people have recently asked for clarification (or quotation) of the legalities around beekeeping with top bars (as opposed to using full frames).

Here's the relevent extract for Victoria:

Livestock Disease Control Act 1994 - SECT 123

Construction of hives

123. Construction of hives

(1) A person must not keep bees or permit bees to be kept in a hive-

   (a)  which does not have moveable frames which may be separately and
        readily removed from the hive to allow examination of the honeycomb;

   (b)  from which the honeycomb cannot be readily removed without cutting or

   (c)  which cannot be readily handled for inspection.

(2) If, in the opinion of an inspector, any hive does not comply with
subsection (1), the inspector may order-

   (a)  that the bees be transferred to another hive within any reasonable
        time that the inspector specifies in the order; or

   (b)  that the hive or any honeycomb or frame in the hive be adjusted as
        specified by the inspector within the time specified in the order.

(3) If at the end of the time specified in the order, an inspector is
satisfied that the directions in the order have not been complied with the
inspector may, at the expense of the owner, cause the bees to be transferred
or destroyed.

(4) If the estimated expense under subsection (3) exceeds $3000 the inspector
must first obtain the approval of the Minister.


Relevent parts of the Act applying to beekeeping:

Part 4 - Division 5: 48 to 53: Bees
Part 5 - Division 2: 66 to 70: Bees compensation
Part 8 - Division 4: 122 to 125: Additional power with respect to bees

More guidence (Vic) available here and here.


A summary of all Australian regulations is below - this list originally compiled by Anthony Andrist:
Looks like some liks are dead - I will update soon. Tony.

19 Feb 2012

Urban beekeeping and swarming hives

From an online discussion about the management of bee hives in the urban environment and our responsibilities regarding swarm management/avoidence.

David is convenor and moderator of the Warre discussion group, co-translator of the book 'Beekeeping for All' by Emile Warre as well as author of 'The Bee-friendly Beekeeper - A sustainable approach'.

Republished with kind permission from the author.

There are two main issues here. The first is duty of care, due diligence and the rest, regarding apiary/hive site and hive monitoring. However apicentric one's beekeeping may be, humans take priority in the ethical decision tree.  All hive sitings should be assessed on a case by case basis having regard for local land usage and any bylaws that may apply.

The second issue is whether or not preventing swarming should be mandatory for urban beeks, or for beeks anywhere for that matter. It is this second issue that's the main purpose of this post.

I've kept bees for nine seasons in frame hives and for the last five seasons in both Warré and frame hives. I've had about three nasty colonies in that time, all in frame hives. Two cured themselves. The third I moved because it was in a friend's garden and was stinging him when he was quite a distance away. I've never had a nasty colony in my Warrés, though I know of one or two UK beeks who have. Several with long experience of bees in frame hives have noticed the relative gentleness of bees in Warrés. Probably the hive is not to be thanked for this. More likely it is the fact that bees in Warrés are not frequently interfered with, for example to control swarming, or just to see how they are getting on.

It has been said that swarm prevention is a sort of bee equivalent of coitus interruptus. As you all know, swarming is what bees do to reproduce and fill the landscape, including urban, with their species. And they find it hard enough under the present circumstances of pesticides, loss of habitat/floral diversity and Varroa etc, without humans adding a further obstacle to their propagation.

There are a several reasons why genuine organic, natural beeks may want their bees to swarm:
1. Propagation by swarming versus splits favours vertical over horizontal pathogen transmission. Horizontal pathogen transmission, the route favoured by many modern beekeeping practices, including splits to control swarming, encourages pathogen virulence. Vertical transmission favours avirulence. [1]

2. The swarm process involves a major component of bee biology and behaviour that contains a number of complex processes, all subject to natural selection. A very entertaining account of it is presented in Tom Seeley's 'Honeybee Democracy'. In the long run, natural selection favours vigour. If you take swarming away then you risk compromising the vigour of stocks.

3. Splits done before there are swarm cells result in emergency queen rearing in worker cells that are remodeled for the purpose. In the normal course of queen multiplication, she is reared in a cell hanging vertically from the start. Queen vigour may be relevant here.

4. Introducing a decent sized prime swarm is a good way to populate one of the more natural hives such as the Warré. The intimacy of queen and workers is already long established. The colony gets a good start in life.
Swarming in town? I would say 'yes' subject to some conditions. The most difficult condition to meet is the public education needed to explain what swarming is and that if the public wants to 'save the honey bee' it may need to move over a bit and make room for it. A compromise would be needed a little more in favour of the bee. It is not too difficult. For example, swarm mitigation measures such as bait hives (swarm lures) and a good local communication system for taking swarms could be put in place. Hives, bait hives and feral nests need to be monitored by the beekeeper responsible, or by others nearby who are willing to do so. Bait hive colonies are then immediately relocated to appropriate sites. I use this system even at sites far beyond the swarming range of my colonies.

I'm the only top-bar beek in my locality. Judging by the number of colony extraction calls I get, frame beeks here are losing a lot of swarms. Their bees get out whatever manipulations they try. For my first six beekeeping seasons I too practised swarm control. Then I realised that it was counterproductive as regards bee health.

A little anecdote: a UK beek who [knew] the whereabouts of 40 feral colonies, and gets a lot of questions about beekeeping from novices, was approached by one beginner in a town who wanted to know what he should do to control swarming. The response was, 'Don't worry about it. There are four ferals near you that throw swarms.'

In my experience towns are riddled with ferals. Bees love chimnies.

[1]  Fries, I. & Camazine, S. (2001) Implications of horizontal and vertical pathogen transmission for honey bee epidemiology. Apidologie 32, 199-214

David Heaf
North-West Wales, UK
Warré & 'National' hives at 30 metres OMSL
Warré beekeeping English web portal:
David Heaf's beekeeping pages:

Watch out for the spin

Having spent a couple of days at the Sustainable Living Festival (with the Perm-apiculture group on the Permaculture Melbourne stand), I've had many conversations with prospective and current beekeepers. The topic of honey extraction has come up a number of times, so I thought I write something on that, while it was fresh in my head. In doing so, also tease apart some of the myths and issues in terms of conventional vs Natural Beekeeping.

Centrifugal extractor - view from above. credit
It seems that the perception of the 'need' to use centrifugal honey extractors is near universal - even among small scale, home beekeepers. No big surprise here, the practices of larger scale or commercial beekeeping have become the de-facto standard for all beekeepers and very few people question the status quo. Still, it amazes me that whenever I mention honey harvesting, the default response is "you'll need an extractor for that". When I question that need, it is met with "oh, but it's so much faster" etc.
This reminds me of another conversation I've had, that went something like this:
Me: "I'll take some frames please."
Seller: "Great and what type of foundation would you like."
Me: None, thanks, I don't use it."
Seller: "Oh, so you don't mind getting less honey then."
Me - thinking: "Actually, I do not mind 'getting less honey' IF that's what going without foundation means"
Both of these scenarios are related to the same line of thinking - that the ultimate (if not indeed only) outcome of beekeeping is the amount of honey we can gain from a colony of bees. This seems to represent our modern (industrial) mentality of maximising rather than balancing our expectations. OK, so if one is a commercial beekeeper and needs to make a living from beekeeping, then fair enough - of course honey yield is a primary and necessary focus in order for the business to survive. We could have a discussion about ethics and the long terms outcomes for bees in that situation, but that's not our topic here.

What is of concern here is that these 'default' positions within beekeeping conversations are passed onto newcomers to backyard beekeeping and are accepted as received wisdom from experts - often then, without question. Of course, I seek to offer an alternative view (use crush and strain) and that's what we've been promoting at the expo. It has been vary satisfying to see the 'light bulb switch on' with so many people, once they've been made aware of this view.

Equipment required for crush and strain can easily be under $50, often much lower. See videos - bear in mind that many variations are possible to those illustrated here:
  1. The '3 bucket' method
  2. Harvesting and chopping (take his advice on using smoke . . .)
  3. Hand crushing (for small amounts of comb)
  4. Straining (use a soft cooking spatula to remove 99% of honey from buckets . . .)

The conversations are different each time - but follow similar patterns . . .

1. Why do we use these extractors?
The usual response is something along the lines of "because everyone else does" or "the alternatives are too time consuming/slow/troublesome".

I agree that, if one has a LOT of frames to FREQUENTLY extract honey from, then yes, the scale of the operation would warrant the use of a $550 extractor. Someone selling honey as a business, for example.

Then I'd ask how many frames are being extracted from how many hives and it's typically one or two hives and and 20-40 frames per year. Small scale.

2. How much time is really saved?
When we typically think about this question, the consideration is limited to the process of getting the honey out of the combs. We imagine the satisfying speed at which honey is spun against the side of the tank verses watching the drip, drip, drip of straining crushed honey through a sieve. Of course the centrifuge is much faster at this point in the process. But that's not the whole story.

When you crush and strain you basically do the following:
  • chop the comb from the frame/top bar and drop into a container
  • slice or mash up the comb to break open the cells (kitchen knife and maybe a wooden spoon)
  • allow the honey to fall through a sieve and into a receiving container. The speed to mostly related to how warm the honey/room is. Bear in mind that you do not stand and wait while it drips - you leave it alone and come back when it's done. I've done some in summer in 90 minutes.
  • at this point you can bottle the raw honey or put it through some finer filtration (muslin) and settlement to remove wax particles and air.
  • Clean down your equipment.
  • Return the bare frames to storage or the hive, adding a fresh starter strip if required.
  • The wax can be pressed and washed and purified as a separate product harvesting process, so let's exclude that part.
When you centrifuge honey you do the following:
  • heat up plain, steam or electric capping tools and use them to slice off the caps from each frame.
  • catch the cappings in a container to be later handled (strained, spun or pressed) to remove the honey that went with them
  • use a separate 'scratcher' to remove the caps off any low lying cells
  • load the frames correctly into the extractor
  • spin the extractor slowly for perhaps 120 revolutions
  • stop and turn the frames around to extract from the cells on the other side
  • these last two point might be repeated
  • remove the frames (now known as 'stickies' and put them to one side)
  • depending on the size of the extractor (2, 3 or 4 frame), continue this process until all frames are done
  • allow the honey to filter and settle in the 'ripening tank' and pour into jars
  • clean up the equipment - noting that far more and more complex equipment is used and more containers. For example - you might need to take the huge extractor into the shower to get honey out of all of the nooks and crannies!
  • take the stickies, place them in a hive box and place them on top of the hive for the bees to clean.
  • If you are leaving them there for the bees to start reusing the comb, then you are done. If you want to store the frames/combs (say, for winter) then leave them for a day or two and then remove the box and talk precautions against wax moth before you store them. That could be a few days in the freezer and sealing them tight in a bag. The  put them somewhere safe for a few months . . .
That's still not the whole story about time . . . In order to use honeycomb in an extractor - some things need to be done before those combs are even built, such as:
  • Using a 4 sided frame - OK, this CAN apply to crush and strain too, but for different reasons
  • Using wire in the frame in order to stop the comb breaking under centrifugal force
  • Using full sheet foundation to cover the wires and to encourage the bees to build straight comb
  • The wiring and foundationing of frames is a tedious, laborious and time consuming job for beekeepers. Granted though that the frames are possibly reused many times, once done.
  • Crush and strain harvesting requires reinstalling starter strips after each use, but that can be avoided by using wooden comb guides instead.
Then there is the purchasing and maintenance of the extractor and all that other equipment and the time you spend at work earning the money to buy it in the first place.

Extraction $$$$. Crush and strain $

Aha! you say. But I get so much honey that I can sell it and get my money back. Well, I say, how much time and $ and effort goes into:
  • buying all of the hive equipment to capture that amount of honey
  • processing all that honey
  • getting council approval for your honey processing facility before it can be sold for human consumption
  • keeping that license and dealing with regular inspections
  • designing and printing your labels
  • buying and filling your bottles
  • finding and spending time with outlets to sell the honey
I'd suggest the payback on even selling the honey was marginal . . . Why not just allow the bees to produce enough honey for you and to give away to a few friends every year - what 20-30kg at the most?

I ask budding beekeepers why they need two colonies in Langstroths to try and produce around 150kg of honey per year and what would they do with all that honey? It can actually become a problem that needs a solution!

Let's be brief - regarding the whole 'spin cycle':
  • Electricity - used in heating uncapping tools
  • Water - used in cleaning all of the equipment
  • Cost - your financial sustainability
  • Wire - stainless steel of galvanised wire is not natural in hives
  • Frames - part of the reason frames are used - not bee friendly
  • Foundation - not a natural addition to hives  - see this article
  • Materials - for all of the tools, esp. huge stainless steel tanks made in China (or elsewhere)
  • Time - I think this shows that you do not save time, as a small-time beekeeper, using centrifuges.
Honey quality
Honey absorbs water and in doing so begins to 'spoil'. The less exposure the honey has to air and oxygen, the better. OK, some people leave honey draining for days in sieves and that's not ideal. But the essential thing here about extractors is that they can reduce the honey into fine droplets which are flung through the air then slowly run down the large area of the tank sides, taking air bubbles with it. There is some discussion about how much impact this might have on the complex and sensitive components of honey and whether that reduces its overall properties.

I think we should end here - but isn't it amazing that by passing on a single piece of conventional wisdom to small scale, new beekeepers, we can lock them into a process which is very possibly counter-productive in almost every aspect? And the opposite of what is 'promised'.

Natural beekeeping - use small scale, simple, low cost approaches.

13 Feb 2012

Cell sizes on foundation

One of the central tenets of 'Natural Beekeeping' is allowing bees to build their comb without undue influence from us humans.

What is that influence? There are probably a few we could include, such as the imposition of frames in their nest, the dimensions of the hive, etc. But the primary way, one in which a keeper definitely has a choice - is in the use of comb foundation. That is, providing an embossed sheet of beeswax (or plastic!) which is mounted in the frame before installing that in the hive. The bees then build their combs, cell by cell on top of that foundation. It becomes the central 'midrib' joining two combs of cells, back to back.

Frame with wired foundation - http://www.volcanoislandhoney.com

There are a number of reasons why this is advantageous for commercial beekeepers. It forms the backbone of a whole honey harvesting system which starts with wiring foundation into frames and ends with those frames being spun in centrifuges to extract the honey, before sending them back to the hive for reuse by the bees. Recycling! Sounds like a really 'green' idea!

There are all sorts of angles we could take on discussing this idea - I'll save some for another day! For now, let's stick with the topic of 'cell size'.

What is the issue here?

A sheet of foundation, by design, is embossed with thousands of hexagonal cell shapes of uniform size (diameter).

The problem with that is bees do not naturally build uniform sized cells across their combs. We know this from even a quick look at comb from 'wild/feral' colonies or from free built comb. They build larger cells for storing honey and pollen at the top and smaller cells (of varying size) for the raising of worker bees and significantly larger cells to breed drone (male) bees.

Of course it makes sense to manufacture foundation with uniformly sized cells, otherwise it would be too complicated and expensive. But is that good for the bees or the colony as a whole? What are the implications or impacts for their well-being? The stock response is that the bees will, when raising drones, find a way to work around the foundation and make their big cells anyway. True, but is that natural and what happens to the cells of worker bees? Worker bee cells usually retain that uniform foundation size because working against the pattern is too much trouble.

Free build comb from a Kenyan TBH - http://beenatural.wordpress.com
'So what' if the cells are all the same size?

Again, studying natural, wild colonies shows that bees vary the size of their worker cell 'brood' comb depending on many variables such as the configuration of the nest hollow, season, availability of food, temperature etc. etc. This allows the colony to breed in response to their environment and other needs. It's also true that diversity creates greater resilience. Forcing bees to be one size works against that.

If bees vary the sizes of their cells, what size was selected for use on the foundation? Sizes of foundation based cells vary depending on the manufacturer and a notional 'average', but they tend towards 5.3 to 5.7 mm, at the higher end of bee size range. I've just measured some I have bought here in Vic and it's 5.7mm - very large. What is the normal wild bee range? Around the 4.6-5.1 mm mark.

So why design in bigger cells and bigger bees? Productivity. Bigger bees mean more nectar collection per bee. More colection means more honey yield.

So, do smaller cells mean 'better bees' in some way?

There's no simple answer to that and it does depend on how you look at the issue. There are a number of studies taking place and lots of prior studies and anecdotal evidence to support both 'yes' and 'no'. But just ask yourself, if it's not natural for the bee, then is it likely to be good for it in the long run?

Where 'small cell beekeeping' is being tested and scrutinised most closely (often by amateur beeks, it seems) is in Europe and USA, where the varroa mite is decimating bee colonies. The very simply put premise goes like this. Larger cells mean larger bee 'babies' - larger bee babies take a day or two longer to turn into adult bees. These longer times suit the breeding cycle of the varroa mite, which means more mites and more stress on the bees. Again, this is not proven, but those folks testing Natural Beekeeping methods, involving allowing the bees to build their own comb, in more bee-friendly top bar hives, are anecdotally reporting an increased colony survival rate. It is this upsurge of interest in combating varroa (as well as CCD) which is driving much of the interest and growth in Natural Beekeeping.

We in Australia are the last honey producing place in the world to NOT have varroa land on our shores. When it arrives (as it seems it must - after all, even the clean and green NZ fell prey), then we should be prepared and have a few tools in our kit which allow us to respond.

Knocking foundation on the head is one such option. There are other reasons to resist the use of foundation - especially for small scale beekeepers - more on that another time.

And we didn't even mention the use of plastic comb and plastic frames yet . . .

Read David Heaf's article on Natural Cell Size.

Perm-api group at the Sustainable Living Festival

Members of the group will be present at the Sustainable Living Festival in Melbourne this weekend (noon Fri 17 to 5pm Sun 19 Feb).

You will find us at the Permaculture Melbourne stand in 'The Green Market', around Birrarung Marr & Fed Square.

We will have a demo Warre/Langstroth hive (no bees . . .) plus will be distributing our fantastic new flyer. Please click on pictures below to view the large version.

We are looking forward to seeing you there!

7 Feb 2012

More on sustainable beekeeping

I've been reading material on the Bees for Development website.

These folks are doing some serious thinking on what 'sustainable' and 'natural' beekeeping really mean. These terms are tossed around increasingly these days, often without too much thought or understanding. So perhaps it's worth reading?

Below is a snippet from http://www.beesfordevelopment.org/portal/article.php?id=2340:

What sustainable beekeeping means

What are the defining features of sustainable beekeeping? Ask most beekeepers and they will say they practise sustainable beekeeping. Do they? If we look at the three dimensions.

  1. Environment Most beekeepers understand that a healthy, bee friendly environment is necessary - and yet there are some stunning departures from this principle.
  2. Genetics The genetics debate is complicated. Many people are opposed to imports but it continues, and many people discuss breeding better bees - even though acquiring a strain of bee from outside your local area locks a beekeeper into non-sustainable practices (because subsequent generations will not breed true).
  3. Husbandry This debate is the least well understood. What are the key principles of natural beekeeping? Does it mean no foundation, no sugar or no manipulation? As frame hive beekeepers, we all believed we were natural beekeepers (most participants used frame hives before changing to methods that are more natural). Now we understand the bee colony is a super organism and cannot be broken open repeatedly. The public perceives all beekeeping to be natural and sustainable. This is an opportunity for different approaches. [my emphasis - see this post]

BfD proposed a vision for sustainability "The aim is healthy populations of locally adapted indigenous bees living in the wild and in apiaries of beekeepers"

[Of course the use of 'indigenous bees' in the vision here is problematic for us in Australia since European honey bees are not native to this country . . .]

Putting PA-SIG on the world map

The Perm-apiculture group is the first in Australia to be added to the map of 'Warre beekeepers'.

You may need to be a member of the UK's Warre Beekeeping Yahoo discussion group to view the map. :-) Highly recomended for in-depth discussion on all things Warre and links with Natural Beekeeping. David Heaf is the moderator.

6 Feb 2012

Pesticides blamed for bee decline

"New formulas make colonies more prone to disease, research finds.

Jonathan Owen of The Independent reports.

Compelling new evidence from the US government's top bee expert that modern pesticides may be a major cause of collapsing bee populations led to calls yesterday for the chemicals to be banned. A study published in the current issue of the German science journal Naturwissenschaften, reveals how bees given minute doses of the widely used pesticide imidacloprid became more vulnerable to infections from a deadly parasite, nosema."

The full article.

5 Feb 2012

I have just returned from a family trip to Borneo - among the many fascinating things we saw there were some native stingless bees.

We first noticed them on entering the village - these little insects (less than 8mm long) were entering and exiting a trumpet like opening near the entrance to the village.

Then, whilst walking around the village, we were shown some working hives - they were so quiet - none of the usual hum we hear when near our hives. The first image shows a hive made out of six pieces of timber and held together with wire and propolis.

This next image shows the entrance to a hive in a large piece of bamboo - the hive itself was had a diameter of about 15 cm and was about 2 foot long.

Interestingly, these lovely little native bees don't seem to have the beautiful geometric honey comb that our bees have - theirs was more like the inside of an ant's nest - it looked a bit haphazard. The inside of an old hive is shown below.

And because of the relatively small amount of honey that is obtained from these bees - the villagers also use honey bees like ours. And as you would expect, the honey tasted different due to the different pollens and nectars. It also had a much thinner consistency - we didn't think it was as good as our honey! The bees in the picture below were drinking up the honey that was out for us to taste.

The lady serving us the honey had honey bees all over hands.

Unfortunately, we did not get a photo of all of the street vendors in the hills of Sabah selling their Honey. It was a wonderful sight - seeing all of the bottles lined up with honey varying in shades from very pale yellow, all the way up to near black honey.

3 Feb 2012

A less obvious benefit of keeping bees . . .

Mr. Swaminathan and bees. © 2011, The Hindu.
Systems thinking is a holistic approach to studying a given situation. It considers and includes relationships and processes which are upstream and downstream of that situation. There are inputs and there are outputs.

Keeping bees, the obvious and most commonly considered physical inputs are nectar and pollen. The obvious outputs are honey and beeswax. This 'system' may also be considered in terms of energy (energetics) too, but that's another post. :-)

A less considered output, somewhat hidden from view is the 'manure' from the bees which is deposited in the vicinty of the hive. In the case of small scale beekeeping, that's in the garden. This article in 'The Hindu' suggests that 45-50kg of the stuff is produced per hive per year.

So, aside from the benefits of pollination on your plants, they are also being nourished from below!

All the more reason to keep bees, Naturally.

1 Feb 2012

Sub-urban beekeeping

This story (and the above picture) from the Dandenong Leader reminds us of our responsibilities (and rights) as urban beekeepers.

Following the (Vic) Beekeeping Code of Practice and regulations, we should be able to minimise any risks - or, perhaps even more importantly, the perception of any risk - to our neighbours and the general community.

As beekeepers, we understand how docile and safe bees are when handled appropriately. Not everyone shares our understanding or passion. Part of being a beekeeper in urban areas is to help raise awareness in the general public.

In Natural Beekeeping we talk a lot about being 'bee-friendly' and focussing on their needs. But this should not be construed as considering humans/community as a secondary issue. Indeed many of us keep bees in order to contribute to society. Perhaps we should clarify that we prioritise the living needs of the bee above the convenience of the beekeeper!

The article mentions 'swarming bees' as a nuisanse. We do need to make the distinction between a 'swarm of bees' and 'bees going about their daily business'.

Swarms occur in spring to early summer when the colony decides to reproduce by splitting itself into two parts. One stays at home and continues life in the hive (or wild/feral nest) with a new queen and the other sets off with the old queen to found a new colony. This involves maybe 30 minutes of action where 1,000's of bees exit the hive and congregate in a cluster on (usually) a tree branch. From here from they scout for a new home and fly to it within hours or a few days.

Daily business for bees is much lower key affair with bees busily to-ing and fro-ing - usually above head height if the hive is appropriately positioned.

During swarming, bees do not naturally present a threat to other animals (including humans). In fact they are extremely docile during this time. They have no nest to defend. If we leave them alone, they won't bother us. Of course, it looks scary if you don't understand what's going on. Swarming is a natural insinct in the bees which we can attempt to manage, but the urge cannot be prevented. As urban beekeepers, one of our prime responsibilities to our neighbours is to attempt to reducing swarming.

We do need to keep these things in mind and be 'good citizens'.