A once-obscure type of beekeeping could help save colonies

Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson
Bees at the entrance to a hive in Ashton, Md.

Honeybee colonies have been dying more frequently in recent years than they used to, in large part because of a phenomenon commonly known as colony collapse disorder. Parasites and the stresses caused by commercial beekeeping practices have contributed to the problem, according to Thomas D. Seeley, a retired Cornell University professor who studies the behavior and social life of honeybees.

It used to be a beekeeper would expect to lose 10 to 20 percent of colonies in a year, mostly over the winter, he says. “And now the colony mortality can be 80 percent.”

Bees have been around for about 120 million years, though, says Brenda Kiessling, a retired physician and an Eastern Apicultural Society of North America-certified master beekeeper living in Vienna, Va. They have proven themselves capable of adjusting to changing conditions. “They have survived on their own and they have had to adapt,” says Kiessling, who has been caring for honeybees since the early 1970s. “They’ve lived through ice ages, rainstorms. Somehow they have survived.”

That knowledge has led Seeley, along with Kiessling and other researchers and amateur beekeepers, to embrace Darwinian beekeeping over the past decade. Once a niche practice, it is becoming more popular with hobbyists. It focuses on creating optimal conditions for bees to make honey, while also mimicking how Apis mellifera lives in the wild. That means housing colonies in small hives that replicate the size of a natural nest cavity, spacing hives far apart to prevent the spread of parasites from one colony to another, and positioning them far from areas treated with insecticides.

Kiessling has been following these guidelines with the bees she keeps at Sandy Spring Gardens in Ashton, Md., for the past three years. But first, she spent nearly a decade reading and researching, including by listening to several of Seeley’s lectures on the practice.

Seeley addresses the subject in the last chapter of his book “The Lives of Bees: The Untold Story of the Honey Bee in the Wild.” The term “Darwinian beekeeping” is a nod to Charles Darwin’s principle that natural selection over time gives species the ability to survive and reproduce.

If you let an animal live naturally, it is able to use its full toolbox and set of skills to survive and reproduce, says Seeley, who has been studying honeybees in the wild in the Arnot Forest outside of Ithaca, N.Y. “But when you take any kind of animal and you force it to live in a different way, those tools aren’t allowed to function very well.”

The practice addresses several of the causes behind colony collapse. A parasite called the Varroa mite, which isn’t native to the honeybee species in the United States, is infecting them with deformed wing virus. The mite can attack honeybees when they are developing. “They come out with shriveled wings, and they are pretty helpless and hopeless,” Seeley says.

Combating the virus starts with getting bees that have good genes, Seeley says. “What hobby beekeepers are taught is you get your hive in the winter and nail it together and paint it. And then in the spring, you order a package of bees from Florida or Georgia, and those bees are just junk,” Seeley says.

In the commercial queen production industry, queen honeybees are produced on a large scale, bred for large colony size and high honey production, but they aren’t usually resistant to mites. In the wild, by contrast, adult worker bees (the queen’s daughters) have evolved to kill Varroa mites by biting off their legs. This adaptation is preferable to using miticides to kill the parasite. “Let the bees show you which ones can survive,” Seeley says.

To get mite-resistant honeybees, Seeley says, beekeepers can capture a wild swarm by putting out bait hives in remote places, far from colonies kept by beekeepers. In spring, when the hive gets too crowded, the queen and half the colony will swarm, or leave the colony to find a new home. Kiessling recommends capturing the swarm while they are hanging out on a tree branch or bush. It can be days or just minutes that they are waiting there, looking for a new home, so you must work fast.

You’re lucky if [the swarm is] on a low branch, she says. “You can just put your garbage can underneath it and shake them into it.” Other times, swarm retrieval can be more precarious and can involve climbing a tree and cutting down a branch.

In the end, you want to raise a colony with a good queen that can survive winters. Without a queen, a colony can’t survive for long; she lays the eggs to produce the bees in the colony.

During Kiessling’s first winter trying her hand at Darwinian beekeeping, only one of her colonies survived, so she took the queen out of the colony, so it could refresh. She moved the queen to a new hive to start an additional colony. Another winter passed, and the queen’s colony survived, so again, Kiessling found the queen and removed her to start a new colony.

Colony mortality also stems from the stresses that come with migratory beekeeping. Commercial honeybee colonies are trucked around the country, including to the Central Valley of California to pollinate almond fields, where they are overcrowded and exposed to pesticides. “They’re moved into a slum-like situation, and it’s a wonderful place for the Varroa parasite to move from highly infected colonies to other colonies and infect them,” Seeley says.

Hobbyists have long modeled their ways after the practices of commercial beekeeping, such as housing bees in large hives close to other colonies, to maximize honey production. Seeley is seeing a shift in that mind-set, though.

There’s an admiration for [commercial beekeepers], that they can manage so many, but there is this growing interest in hobby beekeepers for a kinder and gentler beekeeping, Seeley says. “This approach is to be kind and respectful of the way they are adapted to live and allow them to live naturally, and thus let them use their survival tools.”

To do this, you must mimic their natural environment. For example, space out hives to prevent bees from drifting from one colony to another and to reduce the spread of disease. In nature, wild colonies are typically around 3/5 of a mile apart, but in a hobbyist’s backyard, spacing hives great distances poses a challenge.

That’s unrealistic for most beekeepers, unless you live in a rural place, Seeley says. In a suburban setting, Seeley recommends having just one or two hives, with at least 100 feet between colonies.

You do the best you can, says Kiessling, who spaces her hives about 300 to 600 feet apart.

Other steps include roughening the interior walls of the hive by scratching the wood with a rasp or building the hive with rough-sawn lumber to encourage the production of propolis, a mixture of resins, beeswax and other materials made by the bees that boosts the colony’s ability to fight bacterial and fungal infections. And use hives built from thick, insulated lumber placed high off the ground. Position them far from plants treated with insecticides and fungicides, and near wetlands, forests and fields, where they can gather different kinds of pollen and have access to clean water.

Also house colonies in small hives that mimic the size of a natural nest cavity. That way, the colony becomes overcrowded in spring, forcing bees to swarm, which creates a chain of beneficial effects: For a few weeks, the colony doesn’t have young bees that the Varroa mite can infect, and the colony can refresh itself, creating a new queen.

Rejoice when they swarm, and don’t think of it as a setback, Seeley says. “In most beekeeping, historically, that would be a failure. You are losing your workforce and honey crop. Be satisfied with a small crop of honey.”