At Beepods, we take a very different approach to beekeeping that is not considered to be traditional. It comes across in our equipment, our training, our support, and even how we work with the bees. And it all starts and ends with really one question… “Would the bees like that?”
Think about it this way: if you were a bee, would you like it?
Here are a couple of examples that I can use to illustrate this philosophy.
So if you have to move bees, or are entering the hive, in most types of beehives the equipment you are going to use may be two pieces: a smoker and a brush. You will at least use a brush to move bees out of the way or attempt it. At Beepods we use our ‘Feather Guider’ which is a less aggressive and forceful tool.
With a brush, you will be pushing the bees or pulling them with horsehair, rough straw, or synthetic bristles that are meant to stand up stiff and strong to avoid being broken or bent incorrectly. A fast flick of the bee brush is supposed to surprise the bees and move them quickly out of the way. This will move them into the air or into the hive depending on the technique that has been taught. Most times though, beekeepers discover that the tool and technique will not cause the desired result. Instead, the bees will either be killed by squishing or legs being left in place while the body is popped away, or, the bees will become extremely agitated because the pressure of the brush will push the bees off in clumps, meaning they couldn’t survive the fall to the ground.
At Beepods, we asked, “Would the bees like that?” Answer: “No“. What types of things can we do to make sure that the moving of bees is less stressful and harmful to individual bees?
We decided first to can the bee brush and try something new. How about a feather of some sort? So we tested a bunch of different feathers. From synthetic feathers, to fluffy feathers, to super stiff feathers; long feathers, short feathers, and even some other ideas that had similar properties like plants with tufts of fuzzy seeds at the top, similar to that of overgrown lawn-grass.
We came upon the Turkey Feather. We took it even a step further and identified that the pointer feathers worked the best due to their shape, length and durability. When practicing the same motions one would use with a bee brush, we still experienced some of the same issues of agitation, so it was determined that a forceful surprise attack may not be the answer.
Instead, we tried to see if we could use some softer motions to gently ‘bump the bees’ [link to video on bee bumping]. This tended to work much better. The bees gradually got the picture that they were in the way. We had come across a solution that could work really well. There was only one problem—the wind liked to steal our feathers whenever it had the chance.
Solution: We crafted a handle and hook that would allow us to hook the feather to our belt and weight it down when a belt loop was unavailable. Hence, the new look Feather Guider.
Often in Wisconsin, we face a lot of weird weather that is unexplainable and frankly quite inconsistent, making it difficult to plan and predict the availability of food to the bees. Beekeepers have found a variety of ways to combat this and give the bees some sort of nectar/syrup that will suffice when in dire need. Those that do not find a way to feed their bees, especially in the fall after a slow year, will find that their personal success rate of overwintering drops significantly every year. Since quality food sources are critical to the success of a bee colony, we have taken years to determine our best case scenario and ways to come as close to best case scenario as possible.
Many traditional beekeepers have been trained and told it is ok to remove honey in the fall and begin feeding their bees a sugar-water syrup in place of their natural overwintering food source: honey. But we ask, what is really the best food for the bees? Would the bees like if we took their honey, which they have been working so hard to produce all year? Furthermore, if we take their food source of honey and give them sugar-water, is it the same nutritional value that they have created for themselves to eat during the winter? No.
The best case scenario for the bees is to be placed in the center of a 4-5 mile radius of mixed prairie, wetlands, plants and everything else one could imagine would be beneficial for the bees to eat (click here to read an article on what plants are good for bees). Ideally, this location has flowering plants for every season of the year. Bees will be able to find quality nutritious nectar sources from early spring late into fall and potentially warm winter. The soil has not been contaminated with synthetic chemicals or robbed of its nutritional value, or it has been reinvigorated over time due to implementation of sustainable practices and rejuvenation efforts. This type of environment will give the bees the most well-rounded and available nutrition. After all, as humans, we need variety and quality in our nutrition and we stay healthier because of it.
We find it is best to take varying approaches because, in most locations, the best case scenario does not exist. Ideally, we share with beekeepers that it is important to have a variety of blooms throughout the year. Take note of this. It is important to track these flowering plants year to year and continue to add to seasons where there is seemingly limited food supply.
Step two is to be sure that if you do have to feed, it is done with the bees’ natural food sources. Bees create their honey and store it for winter because it acts as their food source, as well as, their insulation in the hive. We tout and teach to leave as much honey in the hive as possible during the winter season. Harvest what is left in the spring. When spring is in full swing, feel free to go in and grab the leftover honey from last year. The bees do not want it anymore. They are just like us in the spring—they are looking for fresh food, not stored food in the pantry.
So this leads to the next suggestion. If the bees have not stored a significant amount of honey for the winter, what should I do? When this happens, the colony should be handled with urgency. The easiest source of food is another colony of bees’ honey, but remember we want all of the colonies to survive. Therefore load balancing needs to be tracked extensively.
If other honey is not available or seems unfeasible, it is important to create as natural of a syrup as possible and be sure that the consistency is easy for the bees to ingest and easy to remove the water from. Instead of sugar, try raw honey. Add in natural herbs and oils that will help boost immune system response and resiliency. Take a look at this recipe for Honey Bee Healing Tea.
At this point you do what you can, but do your best to not use artificial substances. Understand what the bees may try to do when in crisis mode and supply just that.
Focus on what the bees need and what will support them initially, not what makes life easier for you or maximizes production. Keep track of how these interactions affect the bees. Keep track of how these interactions affect your relationship with your bees and the bees’ relationship with guests at your hive. I think you will be delightfully surprised to see how happy your bees are and how much healthier they will be in the long run.