As a beekeeper who is trying to stay as natural as possible with my hives, I was thrilled to hear Keith supporting Mother Nature.
By low impact beekeeping he emphasized:
- No chemicals
- A more natural environment both inside and outside the colony
He also emphasized the importance of us beekeepers understanding the biology of the honeybee (see my notes from his earlier talk) as well as the biology of the pests that intrude on the bee and the biology of the diseases of the honey bee.
Keith uses no chemicals in his hives - no chemical treatments and no drugs. He discovered that he lost about the same number of colonies each winter with or without chemicals - so why not leave the bees be?
From the outside the hive natural approach, he put up the slide below. The tree in which a bee colony could certainly live stands alone, and thus the bee colony stands alone. We tend to put our colonies side by side (for the convenience of the beekeeper) and that is not natural. Keith is trying to locate his colonies at least 50 yards from each other.
While that is impractical for me in my urban yard, remembering the consequences of unnatural colony location is important. With hives beside each other, drifting between hives may occur and if you have mites in one colony, you will have mites in all the colonies. Just as if you have small hive beetles, you are likely to find them in all hives.
From the inside-the-colony perspective, he encouraged us to keep our equipment clean, to be super cautious about purchasing old equipment from old beekeepers because all of its problems will come with it, and to change out the combs at least every three years.
I asked him about the old comb in a tree (in other words, how does Mother Nature handle old comb) and he said that bees in a tree continually build upward in the tree trunk. When they've gotten as far up as they can go, they abscond and find a new home. The inherent wax moths then take over and destroy the old comb. Then scout bees show up, attracted by the hive smell, find a new home with no old wax, since it has been destroyed by the wax moths, and move a swarm in to start the process all over.
He said that screened bottom boards are essential to a clean hive. Debris, mites, and other detrius fall through the SBB and don't return to the hive. In addition the SBB provides ventilation, essential to a healthy hive.
While he didn't talk about or encourage foundationless beekeeping, he did say that if you use commercial wax, you will have chemicals in your hive introduced by the wax from the commercial companies. He suggested using plastic foundation with no wax coating.
Michael Bush says that the bees don't like plastic and it doesn't work to give them plastic with no wax coating. Cindy Bee who was at the meeting asked about using a strip of paper in the groove, much like I use a wax strip. Popsicle sticks will accomplish the same thing when glued in the frame groove. The goal of all of the aforementioned is to have fresh, uncontaminated wax in the hive.
He talked about bee genetics - using queens from hygienic stock such as the Purvis Brothers' gold line or from survivor stock - like great swarms. If there are enough drones around, he is fine with the bees making their own queens. (Currently my hives at home all have queens that they have made themselves).
When asked about the bad queens many people got in Atlanta in the early nucs this year, he said that buying commercial nucs means that you are getting old queens from last year that the commercial guys don't want any more and that the new queens, with all the rain this spring in Florida, are (and what I heard here was:) shortbread.
As a cook I wondered how the queen bee can be shortbread, but his answer made me understand that what he actually said was, "short-bred," meaning that instead of 17 or 18 drones mating with the queen, she may have only mated with one. (See the story about Julia's drone laying queen at Blue Heron)
He said that nutrition for bees will be the next area of research after colony collapse disorder. Bees have a hard time now getting variety into their diet. We have a "fragmented habitat" and less plant diversity. You should see in a healthy colony all colors of pollen coming in the door in the spring. If you don't see this, then your bees are probably not being fed in a well-rounded way.
He did encourage feeding nucs sugar syrup - not corn syrup. As an Ag agent, he is quite aware of the process sugar goes through from cane to table and feels fine about feeding syrup made from cane sugar to his bees.
A very natural, as in nonchemical, way to control for mites is to do splits. This is because in a split, the old queen stays in one place and the other half of the split has no queen. bees in that half of the split have to make their own queen from an egg, and the process takes about a month from egg to laying queen. This disrupts the varroa mite life cycle because without a laying queen, the mite can't reproduce themselves in a bee egg. Thus the mites die out over this period.
In essence he promoted in every way that a good beekeeper helps the bees have what they need NATURALLY.
What a breath of fresh air!