The role of the Beekeeper & Lazy Beekeeping with Michael Bush
I asked Michael to join me in my most recent podcast episode because I have been recently thinking about the role of the beekeeper and how involved we should get in what's going on in the hive. I believe it's common for people to think that they have to solve all of the problems in the hive. I believe, that there is a lot going on in the hive that we don't know about and often times we do more harm than good when we interfere.
You can listen to the episode by clicking the play button below or on any podcast listening app. Just search for our podcast, The Buzz About Bees.
Below is a photo of the calendar mentioned in the podcast.
Michael's advice for beekeepers who are about to open the hive or see something that they think is a problem is to first ask "What are the bees trying to do?" and "How can I help them accomplish what they're trying to do?".
This is a great first step! Don't just try to fix what seems to be a problem, figure out what's causing the problem. For example, if you see a queen cell, don't just remove it. Find out why the bees are trying to make queens. Is the hive too full? Split it. Was the queen not fertile enough? Leave the cell alone so they can make a new queen? Did something happen to the queen and they no longer have one? Being a beekeeper is like being a detective. You need to find evidence to support your claim, before you make any moves.
My next question for Michael was about the expectation beekeepers have for their bees. If hives die at the same rate they reproduce, and the average hive is swarming at least once every year, then at least 50% of the hives are also dying. Most beekeepers seem to think they have to keep every hive alive and if they don't, it's their fault. Do you see this as a problem with beekeeping today?
Michael says that if the beekeeper wants a higher survival rate, they will have to intervene. Fixing queenless hives, robbing and starving and space management are the big ones. However, unless you're really sure you're helping, you should probably leave them alone and that's a hard thing for people to do.
The first thing beekeepers need to do is shift their thinking from the point of view, I'm trying to make the bees do what I want and start thinking in terms of how do I help the bees do what they're trying to do.
"Beekeepers say, 'How do I stop my bees from doing this?' Well, what you really should be asking yourself is 'Why are they doing that and how can I help?' Cause whatever your bees are trying to do is probably the right thing."
If you want to split a hive, you shouldn't be doing that unless the hive is in a position to want to swarm. If they're not crowded enough to want to swarm, they're probably not ready to create another colony. You have to listen to the bees for the answer.
Is it OK to let your bees do their thing and NEVER intervene? The way Michael sees it, there are wild hives in trees that are already doing that very thing. Bees are not domesticated animals. You're not leaving them in a pen like sheep to starve if you don't give it food. It's not bad or evil to leave your bees to do their own thing.
Is that what he does? Of course not. He wants to harvest honey and he sells queens. He also wants to have a higher survival rate than a wild hive would.
In the opposite extreme as a beekeeper you might be doing more harm than good intervening. For example, some beekeepers take too much honey and their hive starves.
Many people believe that they have to do something even if it's wrong. Michael warns, if you have no clue if it's going to help, it's probably not going to help. That's most likely the outcome. Even if you're pretty sure it's going to help, its probably not going to help.
If you see what appears to be a problem in a hive, what are the steps the beekeeper should take?
Michaels say, first, do nothing. Close up the hive and think it through. If you have friends who are beekeepers or a mentor, talk to them about it first.
When inspecting a hive, first, think about what you want to see and what you think you'll see in the hive. Then, open the hive and looks for signs that you're right or wrong. Consider the time of year when deciding what you should be seeing. In Spring, the bees should be focused on building brood. In Summer they are gathering food. When Fall comes and the honey flow ends, they're trying to rob out their neighbors.
Michael's recommendations for beginner beekeepers:
- Have a mentor or friends who are beekeepers you can talk to about problems in the hive.
- Open your hive up at least once a week, or even more often at first to get used to looking inside a hive and see what they do. Even better would be to put an observation hive in your house or a plexiglas panel or inner cover on the hive so you can observe without disturbing the bees too often.
Below are links to Michael's website where he shares many of his beekeeping techniques and links to purchase his books. I cannot recommend his books enough! In my opinion, he is one of the few beekeepers out there who is talking about beekeeping. So much of beekeeping these days is focused on mites and gadgets, but Michael, asks why do we do what we do and how can we make it better. I hope you check them out.
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