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Beekeeping: Permaculture Approach

Bees – species adept at creating abundance:

Bees are the embodiment of the permaculture principle of concentrating limited resources – foraging large territories, and extracting sweet essence from impoverished ecosystems that surround most of us, regardless of climate or location. Bees essentially feed themselves and – through pollination – feed us, other creatures and the soil. Their honey is delicious, anti-bacterial, full of enzymes, minerals and complex sugars, and is the best burn ointment yet discovered. Propolis can be used for infections, sore throats, care of gums and teeth and the treatment of ulcers. Beeswax is ideal for candles, salve, and lip balm. Bee venom can stimulate the auto-immune system, and ease arthritis.

Getting Present: a Reeducation

To be a beekeeper, it takes a certain personality: quiet calm, grounded presence, awareness of the sun and wind, day lengths and blooming times. It is all about attention to detail, understanding of local economy and industrial agriculture, heightened focus and sensitivity. It is akin to working with all animals and plants, live things. As you see a good beekeeper speaking softly to each bee, coaxing them aside, waiting until every worker has safely moved out of harm’s way before replacing a comb and moving on to a new one, you will notice how he moves so slowly, minding every finger placement, even where he is stepping. And the bees seem not only tolerant of his presence, but soothed by it.

By honoring the bees and their natural processes, we gain the most from them. By disrupting those processes, as modern agriculture does in order to increase profit and yield, we invite disease and risk the eradication of bee populations. This is an essential ingredient in permaculture: designing systems and ways of interaction that support the natural rhythms and patterns of the elements of those systems, and also positively inform our ways of thinking and acting as individuals and in community.

Paying Attention: Connecting Zones

Keeping bees inherently increases our connection with the land, the seasons, local economy and food production, and with the larger webs of relationships within our human and non-human communities. If we pay attention to our bees’ foraging zone, a circle of between six to twenty-four miles in diameter, we can discover what blooms in our area, when it blooms and the distinct sorts of pollen and honey that the bees produce. An attentive beekeeper knows who is gardening and farming in the area, who is planting cover crops that also serve as bee forage, and what sorts of old fruit trees and wild flowers are tenaciously splitting sidewalks and haunting abandoned gardens in public and private spaces. In this way, the sphere of our attention extends up to twelve miles in every direction, bringing into focus the growing, humming, living, designed and natural systems of our community. Additionally, beekeepers pay attention to local materials that are miticidal, such as juniper bark burned in a smoker, eliminating the need for harsh chemicals and connecting our beekeeping process even more soundly to resources and solutions that come from our immediate surroundings.


Patterns in Time: Rhythm and Connection

Working with the bees means being aware of the subtle nuances of the day and the larger patterns they fit into. Bees are most docile when many of the bees are out on their bee-errands: foraging, scouting and pollinating. If it is very cold or very hot out, windy, or a storm is brewing, more bees will be at home in the hive and feeling defensive. In the US Southwest, from mid-February until the summer solstice we can focus on doing divides to increase our hives. We encourage honey production and discourage swarming, establish new hives from caught swarms, ‘divides’; or ‘packages’; move hives out of inconvenient locations such as tree trunks and walls, and raise queens. After the solstice until mid-September, we harvest honey and other hive products and enjoy! Between mid-September and mid-February (the dearth season), the hives must take care of themselves, and as beekeepers, there is not very much we can do with or for them. For beekeepers, taking the cue from our bees, this is the time for us to slow down, spend time with family, mind our homes, tell stories and stay warm. The bees’ daily and seasonal rhythms define the pace and the conduct of the beekeeper, keeping us necessarily slow, mindful of larger patterns, smaller details, and connected to the pulse of our community

Less Work, More Abundance: a simple hive is happy hive!

The design of the hive has a direct impact on the amount of resources, such as time, materials and money that must be spent to establish and maintain it. The hive design also impacts the incidence of disease and mites, and therefore the need for chemicals and antibiotics. Work creates work, and the best designs are often the most simple and elegant ones, the ones that allow the rhythms and patterns of natural systems to do the work for us. Hive design is one of the most essential ways in which we can honor the natural processes of the bees and work in partnership with them. For these reasons, we recommend topbar hive design (here is the link to hive making plan, courtesy of Les Crowder of New Mexico)

A top bar hive is essentially a long cradle-like box, shaped like the bottom half of a hexagon, mimicking the angles of the hexagons honey bees build their wax comb out of. The box is about 44 inches long and the top is covered with wooden bars that are uniformly 1 and 3/8 inches wide and 20 inches long. The bees build a comb on each one of these top bars. One can make an entire hive out of one 10” x 16’ board, or by simply scavenging for scrap wood (being careful not to use treated wood that may off-gas harmful chemicals into the hive). The hives are very durable and quite cheap to put together, and also require far less specialized equipment for storage, harvesting honey and wax, gathering pollen, replacing brood comb, etc. For example, when harvesting honey, the top bar beekeeper simply cuts the whole comb from a top bar and places the comb in a bucket. The comb is then cut up to sell as comb-honey, or crushed and left to filter through a sieve, separating the wax from the honey and allowing the honey to retain as much pollen and other highly nutritive properties as possible. This also induces the hive to create more comb in order to produce more honey and therefore any fat soluble toxins they may have absorbed from the environment will be diluted in the on-going wax production.

With Langstroth hives, honey is extracted from the comb centrifugally, and the empty comb is put back into the hive for the bees to refill. This requires specialized equipment, and also keeps the bees from producing the wax combs themselves. Top bar hive design takes into consideration the long term health and natural preferences of the bees. Because of this, top bar beekeepers are able to avoid many of the problems chemicals and antibiotics are used to ‘solve’.

Because comb is not harvested in gathering honey from a Langstroth hive, the comb needs to be stored over the winter when the bees are focusing on keeping their brood alive, and not producing honey. This storage requires chemicals to ward off wax-moths that want to eat the empty comb. In a top bar hive, the bees are always present to weed out the wax-moths before they become problematic, and there is no extra comb to store because it has all been harvested. In fact, in nature, hives abandon very old black brood comb and let the wax moths eat it, partnering with them to clear space for new, clean comb.

Additionally, Langstroth hive foundation sheets are machine made to a pre-determined cell size. The bees build combs onto these machined sheets of beeswax or plastic, which are fit into wooden frames. This cell size is larger than what the bees would naturally choose, so that the brood combs can be reused for a longer duration before they become too restricted.

Left to their own devices, bees tend to build a variety of cell sizes in their brood comb, larger cells for honey and pollen storage, and smaller cells where they will lay eggs and raise brood. They can then shift where the queen lays eggs, favoring the larger cells to raise larger workers whose fat bodies may survive a cold winter with more ease. Additionally, smaller cells grant some disease and mite resistance to the bees raised in them. In top bar hives the bees have the freedom to build their comb as they see fit, responding to the seasons and to the threat of mites and disease, and eliminating much of the need for our intervention as beekeepers.


Excerpts from ‘The Sweetest of Community Builders’ by Minna Jain, originally published by the Permaculture Activist. Minna lives and teaches topbar beekeeping in Durango, CO.