***Please Note: This information was originally provided in conjunction with a presentation at the Organic Growers School Spring Conference. If you have further questions, feel free to contact us.***
“Introduction to Organic BeeKeeping”
by Eric Brown, Milk and Honey Farm
WHY KEEP BEES?
- Bees are fascinating!
- Just one colony can potentially produce two to three or even four dozen quarts of honey per year in the Carolinas with a fairly minimal labor investment, *IF* that labor is well informed and wisely spent.
- Honeybees are helpful pollinators of apples, pears, berries, vine crops (Cucurbitacaea), many biennial crops grown for seed, oilseed crops, etc.
IS ORGANIC BEEKEEPING A REALISTIC POSSIBILITY IN NORTH CAROLINA?
Certification in the Carolinas is a practical impossibility, mainly because bees are going to forage on other people’s land (12,000-50,000 acres of it) and those people aren’t going to manage their land/home sites/roadways organically. For your part, though, in terms of what you do with your bees, it will be very challenging but entirely possible to keep honeybees without pesticides, antibiotics, artificial feeds, etc.
WHAT WOULD MAKE MY BEEKEEPING NOT ORGANIC?
- antibiotics (terramycin/tylosin) for foulbrood control
- paradichlorobenzene for comb storage
- butyric anhydride for honey harvesting
- antibiotics (fumadil/fumagilin) for nosema control
- coumaphos for hive beetle control
- various pesticides for varroa and/or tracheal mite control
- wax foundation containing pesticide residues
- non-organic feed (mainly corn syrup/sugar syrup
UNDERSTANDING WAX MOTHS
- Wax moths don’t kill healthy hives; they eat what’s left over when a hive dies.
- Empty stored combs are unattractive to wax moths if they’ve never had brood in them.
- Wax moths avoid sunlight, they’re inactive in the cold, and they’re killed by hard freezing.
MANAGING FOULBROOD ORGANICALLY
- Inspect regularly and carefully, promptly burn infected combs/equipment.
SMALL HIVE BEETLES
- In many locations hive beetles, if they’re around at all, never cause enough trouble to even notice.
- For small hive beetles trouble, try a cooking oil-based trap to drown them.
- Mite-resistant queens
- Sampling for varroa mites (e.g. screened bottom boards: 24 hour natural mite drop count)
- Nucs (colonies consisting of five or fewer frames)
- Drone brood: mites love it
WHAT ABOUT “SMALL CELL”?
Despite the fervor of a fringe of very vocal proponents, this speaker is convinced there is no real substance to the purported benefits of “small cell” foundation (as evidenced most recently by research by Jennifer Berry at the University of Georgia.) This speaker would especially discourage any beginner from investing in “small cell” theories. There are scientifically respectable methods for accomplishing all the same goals just as organically if not more so.
SOURCES FOR INFORMATION
Beekeeping varies so much by location. Local beekeeping clubs/associations are invaluable for learning how to keep bees under local conditions. Take advantage of opportunities to work together with and learn from other beekeepers. The state association websites list 78 local beekeeping associations in North Carolina and 4 in South Carolina (plus active state associations in both states.)
The American Bee Journal and Bee Culture are the two big beekeeping magazines. For a broad education in the world beekeeping and for exposure to and information on potentially useful organic methods, they’re hard to beat.
There are multiple researchers/research groups with websites with lots of great information and research papers. Especially impressive are:
The Swiss Bee Research Centre:
and Randy Oliver’s (a commercial beekeeper in California) website (most of the content was originally published in the American Bee Journal):
There are two large beekeeping internet discussion lists, beesource and bee-l. This speaker wouldn’t especially recommend them as sources of information for the beginner, especially because they seem to get so quickly sidetracked with abstract arguments, but they may be worth knowing about.
A book titled Natural Beekeeping was just recently published. Its subject matter recommends it to the organic beginning beekeeper. However, the book covers a limited scope of organic methods. The author also focuses pretty narrowly on Vermont (where there happen to be a couple of very smart, organic-leaning beekeepers) where beekeeping is significantly different from the Carolinas.
MAJOR EQUIPMENT SUPPLIERS
Brushy Mountain Bee Farm, Wilkes County, NC 1-800-233-7929
Dadant, multiple branches nationwide, 1-877-832-3268
Walter T. Kelley Company, KY 1-800-233-2899
WHERE TO GET THE BEES
Unless you have a trusted neighbor that can supply you with bees, this speaker would recommend purchasing a package from a large, reputable package supplier, the nearest of which are in Georgia and Alabama. As inefficient as it may sound, if you wish to use a special strain of bee (particularly mite-resistant strains), your best bet may still be to purchase a package from Georgia/Alabama and promptly replace the queen. Most of the queen breeders that specialize in mite-resistant queens do not produce or sell packages.
The greatest risk of disease, early mite problems, and pesticide residue problems comes from the comb. Therefore, buying a package (sometimes called an artificial swarm) or a natural swarm, which would consist simply of bees without any comb, are your least risk means of getting started with bees. Established hives and nucs/splits carry risks the beginner may especially want to be wary of.
Organic Growers School is a non-profit organization providing organic education since 1993. Our mission is to inspire, educate, and support people in our region to farm, garden, and live organically.