What we've learned about Sustainable Beekeeping

We started keeping Bees in 2018. Having attended a lot of training and read more than you can possibly imagine, we decided that Sustainable Beekeeping was the approach we wanted to take. So what is Sustainable Beekeeping? There is a phrase which has been quoted to me many times over the past year. It goes along the following lines: 'ask 4 beekeepers a question and you'll get 5 different answers'. Most beekeepers follow the same general beekeeping principles. However inevitably people find a preferred way to work with their bees day-to-day as their experience grows. Hence so many potential answers to one question. And in the same way, it turns out there's no one definition of Sustainable Beekeeping. Here are some of the common principles running through Sustainable Beekeeping that made sense to us, so we have adopted them.

We started with Swarms rather than buying bees from outside the area

 Swarm of Honey Bees

There is a compelling argument which says that if you acquire bees very locally, they are more likely to survive. Already familiar with the conditions, they are simply a group of bees from a (hopefully) thriving colony who decide to up and relocate.

So we didn't buy any bees. Someone helped us to acquire swarms instead. It is, of course, easy for me to say this now. We ended up with two viable swarms last summer so we had two hives by the end of summer. However we had a false start, with two queenless swarms that sadly didn't survive. Time was marching on and we were beginning to wonder whether we would ever have a viable colony in our hive. At one point I remember thinking 'I wonder if I should have just bought a colony from a bee seller'. Now I'm glad we didn't, and I would stick with this principle if we had our time again.

I realise it's not always that easy. Depending on where you live, you may have to buy your first colony of bees. And if I was desperate, I would buy them too. But if you are interested in acquiring a local swarm, get yourself on the list with your local swarm coordinator. Details available from the British Beekeepers Association.

We're not beekeeping primarily for the honey

I was struck early on that conventional training held a consistent message. That you can recoup some of your financial outlay by selling the honey your bees produce. Beekeeping equipment is expensive, and local honey is much sought-after. So it would make sense to sell some of your honey to get some of your money back. To be able to do this, you need to maximise your bees' honey production. That way you will have plenty to sell. I'm not saying that every traditional beekeeper is only concerned with honey production. Many beekeepers I've met over the past year who keep bees in the traditional way are not only concerned with the honey. I met a vegan family last summer who don't take any honey at all. If you are truly not bothered how much honey your bees produce provided they have enough for themselves, then you don't need to be thinking about maximising honey production all the time.

(try to) Relax about Swarming

A colony of bees is a living thing. It can only reproduce by splitting, with one part going off to start again and the other part remaining behind to re-build the colony. This is what we know as swarming. More about swarming here. 

In my original beekeeping training I was shown how to clip a Queen's wings so she can't fly once she has mated, which means the colony is supposedly less likely to swarm. I was taught how to identify Queen Cells in the hive and destroy them, as they are likely to be an indication that the colony is planning to swarm. Ways basically to prevent the bees doing what they do naturally, which is swarm to reproduce. We keep our bees at a local vineyard because our garden is small and it is inevitable that, at some point, the bees will swarm. Which would upset the neighbours. Hence we keep them in a big space. But it is not our land, and we don't want to upset the kind people who have let us keep the bees there either.

We plan to set up lures this year in the hope of encouraging a swarm that they might like to move into our recommended accommodation. Highly unlikely, but it does happen. What we will also do is have at least one more hive set up in the event that our bees decide to split, so we have somewhere to put them immediately if we are able to catch the swarm. What we won't do is interfere with what they naturally need to do, which is reproduce. If they swarm and we lose them, then so be it. It is not in their interests for us to stop them doing what they need to do.

No Foundation

This is another of the main things we do differently from what is considered 'the norm' in beekeeping. We don't give our bees sheets of wax foundation on which to build their comb. Instead we insert a thin strip of foundation along the top of each frame to give them a guide. Then they do the rest.

Foundationless bee frame

If you don't give your bees wax foundation, they will take longer to fill each frame with brood and honey. That is because they will be building all their comb from scratch. So you won't get honey as quickly as you would have if you'd filled your hive with foundation sheets. And over a beekeeping season, you may not get as much honey either. And your bees definitely won't always build their comb straight, which makes things interesting if you're planning to use a honey extractor (we don't do that either).

An arguable upside is that your bees might be inclined to swarm less quickly because they take longer to fill up the hive. In other words, the bees take longer to decide they've outgrown the hive because it takes more time to build all the comb themselves. But as I mentioned earlier, we try to be relaxed about swarming. The majority of foundation is produced from beehives unknown, which may have been treated with pesticides, fungicides and other chemicals. These will have been absorbed into the wax. Of course millions of hives use commercially-produced foundation so these pesticides clearly aren't killing bee colonies all over the country. Nevertheless, we would prefer not to put them into the hive if we don't have to. We've met people who have moved from foundation to foundation-less in their beehives. We decided to start as we meant to go on.

No Queen Excluder

Most beekeepers use a mesh barrier called a Queen Excluder. They fit it in-between where the queen lays her eggs (brood box) and where the bees store their excess honey (supers). The theory behind a queen excluder is that worker bees can easily pass through the wire but the queen and drones cannot. Beekeepers place excluders above the brood box to prevent the queen from going up and laying eggs in the honey supers. This keeps things easy for the beekeeper, who can simply take the whole super box away to extract the honey, without fear of inadvertently killing brood or the Queen herself. Some beekeepers are quite happy using Queen Excluders, some aren't. Some believe that they make the Queen (and therefore the bees) annoyed because she can't go where she wants. Most beekeepers disagree. Given that we're not bothered if the Queen lays in the supers, we don't need to use an Excluder. And we prefer not to.

Observing the Hive more from the Outside than the Inside

This is another way in which this Beekeeping approach differs from traditional methods. You are traditionally taught to open up the hive frequently and give it a full check to see what is happening. Last year we opened up the hives now and again through that very hot summer, but by no means every week. We tried to disturb the bees and their environment as little as possible, by only opening the hives when absolutely necessary and in ideal conditions. Preferably when the temperature outside is close to what it's likely to be on the inside of the hive.

Obviously we want to be sure the bees are healthy and free from disease, which requires us to check the frames for signs of anything untoward. But you can get an awful lot of information from just watching from the outside. And opening up a hive to the cold only means the bees can't focus on themselves because they have to focus on getting the hive warm again for them and their brood. That won't make them stronger, or happier. So we don't want to open the hives any more than is absolutely necessary.

Taking small amounts of Honey

This won't come as a surprise given what I said so far. Most beekeepers extract large amounts of honey at some point in the season, usually all at the same time. Some do it in Spring, some in Autumn. Some do both. Last year we didn't expect any honey at all, but 2018 was an amazing summer and our large hive was very productive. We were able to take a couple of frames now and again, cut out the comb and pop the frames back in the hive. Then the bees filled them up again. We will always be taking honey on a small scale. It's easy to pop the cut
comb into a mesh cone and allow the honey to dribble through the filter into a bucket.

Honey filtering

Beautiful raw honey, still with tiny pollen flecks floating around but no bee bits. Warm, straight from the hive. Not heated, not treated, not diluted with something else. There really is nothing like it. We're not looking to sell honey, so we can leave most of it for the bees. Which is only right, since they made it.

Leaving the bees with most of their own honey for winter

This was the bit of the conventional beekeeping training that bewildered me the most. I was taught to extract the honey from the supers in August, then feed the bees sugar water later in the year so they have enough food to get them through the winter. We didn't want to feed our bees with refined sugar and High Fructose Corn Syrup. We wanted them to have their own honey. So we left our big hive (Gwyneth) with a full super of honey for the winter. It has been a little more nerve wracking with our small hive (Molly). That was a smaller swarm we didn't catch until early July. We weren't certain they had enough honey for the winter. Luckily we've been able to open them up in the recent warm spells and take a peek. So far, so good. If the small hive had looked like they were running out of stores, we were of course prepared to feed them with commercial products rather than allowing them to starve. So far we haven't had to make that difficult decision.

Where can I find out more about Sustainable Beekeeping?

This post only scratches the surface of Sustainable Practices in Beekeeping. And we are very inexperienced. A year is no time at all, we still have huge amounts to learn. I would stress that, whilst taking this approach is less common than the more traditional methods, it is by no means radical. We are all still members of the British Beekeepers Association, our bees are registered with Beebase. We go to meetings and nobody hurls abuse at us and tells us to get lost. Well not in East Sussex anyway :) Sustainable Beekeeping is become more 'mainstream' by the year, as people start to keep bees to help maintain their numbers in these times of global change.

Our mentor and the person who turned us on to Sustainable Beekeeping is Jennifer Moore, aka The Wayward Bee. Jennifer runs Sustainable Beekeeping Courses in Hellingly, East Sussex. She also makes great cake! Check out her website for more information. 

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  • Oh Karen that’s fantastic! We haven’t gone into the brood box of our big hive for ages either, we decided we didn’t want to disturb them too much after a couple of inspections and we left them with a whole super too last Autumn. Our second colony is now getting bigger, they’ve just started building in their super so we’ll leave their brood box now too. We give them a strip of foundation to start when we need new frames and, as you do, 1cm of comb after extraction. How lovely to hear your positive experience. I think there’s quite a bit of peer pressure to go into the hive a lot, last year I felt guilty not doing it in case I was neglecting them. But both hives survived the winter, even the one with a small swarm which we didn’t get until July. So we feel more confident in our approach this year and will continue with it. Good luck with your bees, and thank you for what you’ve said. It reinforces our sense that we’re doing the right thing – Bev

  • Hi loved your blog. I have had a hive for 10 years. When I started I was trained to go into the hive and inspect kill queen cells etc but I felt it put the hive back and disturbed them. So for the past 9 years I only go in to extract twice a year sometimes only once and to check on the before wintering them. I always give them a brood and a super for living and always a full super in winter I never feed them.
    I am sure I have had many swarms but that’s fine. They never all leave. I may get less honey that year but I save money but leaving 1cm of comb after extracting so don’t have to buy anything ever.
    I have a nucleus box which I will keep as I have moved to smaller garden and I think a recent swarm may have been from our hive in our neighbors tree. I did go to catch it but it left in an hour. I will buy lemon grass oil to help them go to the box as soon as I see next time. But in my 9 years I have never looked in the brood box and yet they have been healthy happy bees.


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