10 COMMANDMENTS OF BEEKEEPING
Updated: Jun 24
The Ten Commandments of Beekeeping *
– with comments by Colin Wood – 7th May 2020.
I have blatantly stolen this idea from Michael Bush. I recently discovered Michael’s interesting ideas, and amongst the gems on his website are his comments on the same 10 commandments that you see listed below in black. (I’ll put a link to his responses at the bottom and urge you to explore his site, and maybe buy his book). I share his views on so many things, for which I sometimes feel like a heretic going against established doctrine. Most of us beekeepers have the same basic goal, but there are many ways to achieve it. Some aspects are just different paths, others I feel a bit more strongly about. I do feel things may be starting to change for the better. Michael has been pursuing his ways for decades, so I feel rather inadequate beginning this, but everyone has to start somewhere. No doubt I will refine things as I learn more. Anyway, I thought Michael’s idea was fun and a good way to let people know where I stand with my bees. So, the source document is in white and my comments are a fetching orange. Here goes:-
I. Thou shalt use only standard beekeeping equipment. The Langstroth hive is the best arrangement of hive body and frames that we have today. It permits unprecedented access to the bees and their brood, and allows for complete interchangeability of parts. The modern hive respects bee space and permits regular monitoring of the colony for diseases and parasites. Traditional straw skeps, log gums, and clay pots are not permitted by law because they do not allow this access.
In the UK, the modified National hive is the most prevalent, but I have chosen to use a Rose Hive. The Rose Hive is composed of boxes of the same size which allows for true interchangeability. All the frames are the same size, whether they be used for brood or honey. The boxes share the same floors and roofs etc as the National. I generally find the Rose Hive easier and more flexible to work with, especially in changing old comb and gathering drawn comb, for example. Just as important to me is the Rose Hive Method explained by Tim Rowe, much of which can be adapted to other hives. More about this another time.
II. Thou shalt be considerate of non-beekeeping neighbors. Be careful where you place your hives. Though it is legal to keep bees in town in most areas, consideration of your neighbors who might have small children, who are afraid of bees, or who are allergic to bees stings is paramount to successful and enjoyable beekeeping. Caution your neighbors if you plan to put a hive in your backyard, and avoid putting the hive in a place where bee flight paths cross sidewalks and play areas. Provide water for your bees so they don’t bother others. Free honey can help sweeten an uncertain situation.
Respecting the neighbours is certainly a responsible approach. Fortunately I have plenty of space around me that mitigates many of the problems that could arise from beekeeping in a more densely populated area.
III. Thou shalt requeen regularly. Requeening regularly can go a long way toward maintaining productive colonies. Requeening can maximize both brood and honey production, and is helpful in suppressing swarming and certain diseases. It is generally considered best to requeen with stock produced by commercial suppliers of bees as queens produced by your own colonies will rarely result in superior breeding.
Nope. I disagree with this entirely. I just don’t like the thought of killing a queen heading a colony that has enriched my life, and shared their honey, unless it is absolutely necessary. I have spent many a happy hour watching her offspring come and go; I just can’t commit regicide. I’d much prefer to see a Queen live out her life and be superseded naturally if possible. I am entering my 4th beekeeping year along with one of the Queens, who still allowed me to harvest a goodly quantity of honey last year. Some older books talk of Queens lasting up to 5 years, presumably because they have not been subjected to lots of chemicals and have been successfully mated from a large pool of healthy drones.
I also disagree with the last sentence and will not import bees from anywhere, particularly further afield or, worse still, abroad. Hopefully, as the years pass, my Queens and colonies will become ever more suited to the environment in which they live and will live longer lives as nature intended.
IV. Thou shalt control diseases and parasites. Every beekeeper should get to know his bees and the diseases and parasites that can affect them. Certain bee diseases such as foulbrood can be spread easily from colony to colony which can have disastrous effects. Get to know the signs of the more common bee diseases: American and European foulbrood, chalkbrood, sacbrood, and Nosema. Be aware of the debilitating effects of parasites such as varroa and tracheal mites. Get to know your medications (Terramycin, Fumadil B, Apistan) and be aware of how one can use grease patties and menthol. Apply these medications according to instructions so that you won’t kill bees, produce resistant diseases and pests, or contaminate honey intended for human consumption.
I agree that the beekeeper needs to be aware of all that could ail their bees. Indeed, a beekeeper is legally obliged to notify the ‘National Bee Unit’, or their local bee inspector, should they discover American Foul Brood or European Foul Brood in their hives. Tropilaelaps Mites and Small Hive Beetles also need reporting if seen. For most of the other diseases I would look to make sure that my duty to provide a healthy environment is being discharged. The hive should be weather-tight, with enough ventilation, sufficient space and old, dilapidated comb removed to that end.
I don’t treat my colonies. I don’t want to subject them to chemicals that may disrupt what they want to do naturally as they build up for winter or hunker down to get through it. (The names are nasty, it’s as if the producer subjectively realises how unpleasant they must be). It just doesn’t feel right to add chemicals as the Queen is trying to lay winter bees, or to open them up and drizzle acid all over them as a Christmas present. History also records that many treatments are ineffective in the long run. The varroa mite has evolved to cope with successive treatments, so that’s money that could be better spent on trees and plants as a healthy diet for the bees and other pollinators. I would rather the bees develop to cope with challenges like varroa, for example, as they have been for millions of years. Besides that, I do not want any of the residual chemicals affecting their home or the excess wax and honey that people then enjoy. It’s early days in my beekeeping but, as they head into their fourth year, I have only lost one hive and all seem strong despite a varroa presence. If I can get them through their fifth year then I’m hoping that Tom Seeley is right, and that they may have adapted to live with them. (The Lives of Bees).
V. Thou shalt maximize colony populations before the main nectar flows. It can be an expensive mistake to build up the size of your bee colony on the main nectar flows rather than for the main nectar flows. Requeening, disease control, and feeding sugar syrup and pollen substitute can help achieve this objective. Control swarming by keeping young queens, reversing hive bodies during the spring, and supering appropriately. Don’t tolerate marginal colonies. Requeen, medicate, and supply frames of brood to weak colonies, or merge them with other colonies. Remember, one large colony will produce more than twice as much as two half the size.
I don’t plan to take advantage of any nectar flows by forcing the bees to do anything they don’t want to do. I let the bees build up as they want to build up and try and give them room when needed. Following the methods of Tim Rowe’s Rose Hive Method, I don’t use a Queen excluder to confine the brood nest. The Queen can lay wherever she wishes as far as I’m concerned. She tends to lay in a defined area shaped like a rugby ball and the nest is surrounded by pollen and honey. This could be in as many as four boxes at times, and is truly wonderful to see. I think that this freedom reduces the incidence of swarming. Of course, it is natural for colonies to want to swarm, as it is their method of reproduction, but I wonder if imprisoning them beneath a queen excluder and forcing them to build an unnatural shaped nest just makes them want to do it more often.
Whilst on the subject of freedom, I don’t cull drones, but actually encourage the bees to make as many as they need. Again, Tim Rowe and others have warned that you cannot expect Queens to mate well if you restrict the pool of suitors. I have been providing each box with at least two frames of ‘starter strips’ so that the bees can build whatever they want. (I am looking at taking this further, but more of that on another day). This is often drone comb, which is fine. With more drones and well mated Queens maybe we will return to the days when Queens lived for more than one or two years. I have to admit that I am a bit of a softie and can’t bring myself to cull a Queen, even if she shows signs of old age. I hope that she will be superseded by one of her daughters or I may look to downsize her into something more suitable in her dotage.
Finally, I will never feed sugar-syrup to my bees, unless they are at the point of starvation. I don’t want to force them to build up for anything and I will have failed them terribly if I steal so much of their honey that I have to feed them for the winter. Bees need their own honey and pollen. Subjecting them to anything else is greedy and probably a reason they can be short-lived and unable to cope with disease. I am determined not to do it. Not only that, how can I guarantee that sugar syrup does not end up in the excess honey that I sell?
VI. Thou shalt super colonies according to their needs. Provide plenty of space for bees to store their nectar before the nectar flows start. This will help control swarming, and encourage foraging. Remove the supers in late summer so that the bees will be encouraged to pack the brood nest heavily with honey for winter.
I don’t have too much argument with this except that I don’t use ‘supers’. All my hive boxes and combs are the same size. I’m glad that it is ‘honey’ for the winter and not sugar syrup Grrr.
VII. Thou shalt take pride in honey and other hive products. Keep your honey-handling equipment clean, and strain your extracted honey to remove particulate debris. Use standard honey jars, and resist the urge to sell or give away your honey in used canning or mayonnaise jars -- such packing looks cheap and unprofessional, and can impact negatively how the consumer thinks about honey. Use an appealing label, and never let your jars get sticky. Market your product with pride, confidence, and creativity.
Again, this is fair enough. I use the word ‘strain’ rather than ‘filter’ as I use a course sieve type thing to remove large bits of wax. Bearing in mind that many people will eat the comb, wax and all, I think the honey doesn’t need a lot of work. Filtering is bound to remove something good isn’t it? I like to extract the honey as soon as it is removed from the hives, let it settle overnight and get it in the jars the following day. I like the thought of people enjoying their honey when it is days or weeks old. Of course good honey will last for ages, but I hate the idea of storing it in buckets and then reheating it for sale which is a practice I’ve commonly seen. My way is a lot nicer don’t you think?
VIII. Thou shalt protect thy beekeeping equipment. Beekeeping equipment can last for years if properly prepared and cared for. Consider using wood preservatives, pilot holes for nails, and a good paint job. Keep your hives off the ground where they can be subject to rotting, and fall victim to pests such as carpenter ants and termites. Protect your stored combs from the wax moth by using paradichlorobenzene. Store your beekeeping supplies under clean conditions.
I don’t have too many issues with this except I won’t be applying any chemicals where the bees have to live. The one downside of Rose boxes is that, although they are affordable, they are made of softwood and ply rather than lovely red cedar. This means that I paint them to protect them and keep them looking sharp. All hive parts will undergo much scraping and tidying as well as a round of freezing and scorching intended to remove any nasties that may be present.
IX. Thou shalt help thy bees through winter. Treat colonies in the fall for foulbrood, Nosema, and mites. Make certain that you use two brood chambers for wintering, and that the bees enter winter with a full honey supply. Reduce hive entrances for the winter, and provide an upper entrance to provide an alternative access and as a means for assisting with the discharge of excess water vapor. Pack your hives if you anticipate a harsh winter, and always protect them from the wind. Check your colonies for food supplies in midwinter by hefting the hive. If the bees are running short of supplies, be certain to feed them sugar syrup. If brood rearing is beginning to take place to a significant degree before pollen is available in the spring, provide your colonies with pollen substitutes.
No to the treatments, emphatic yes to the honey, absolute no to the sugar syrup and pollen substitutes.
I tend to leave all my entrances reduced all year round. It seems to prevent robbing from starting and there is plenty of ventilation through an open mesh floor. Even the strongest colonies don’t seem to have a problem getting in and out, and it is much easier for the guard bees to defend. I don’t bother with ventilation at the top, as any gaps created by matchsticks or vents is sealed by the bees in my experience. They clearly don’t want it and I’d rather not put them to the trouble. Much of this is based on the views of a guy called Wally Shaw who says a lot of things that resonate with me, even though he keeps his bees in nationals. I have pinched his hive stand spec for a start, and you can pick up a lot of ‘thinking like a bee’ snippets from his writing.
I insulate the roof believing that the warm surface will divert moisture laden air to the colder sides where it can condense and run out of the hive without dripping on the bees. There’s a lot more to this for another day. My house has a zinc roof with masses of insulation so why not give the bees the same facility? I think it helps keep the warmth in the winter and prevents overheating in the summer.
X. Thou shalt join and participate in a beekeeping association. Beekeeping organizations can be exceedingly helpful in your efforts as a novice beekeeper. They are often filled with knowledgeable and experienced persons who are most willing to answer questions and lend a helping hand. These organizations frequently have, as a benefit of membership, association rates for publications such as the American Bee Journal, Bee Culture, and The Speedy Bee. Most such organizations also publish newsletters such as the Heart of Illinois Beekeeper and the ISBA Newsletter. Most importantly, beekeeping associations help defend the interests of beekeeping and beekeepers. They deserve your support.
Yes, I would recommend the UK equivalent to this. I spent a year at North Devon Beekeepers handling their bees. I was able to confirm that I enjoyed the craft before getting bees of my own. It was extremely confusing, and at times my mind was a jumble with the differing opinions. However, I think there are many ways forward, and all the people I have met have helped me in some way. I don’t like it when folk get vitriolic, but you soon learn to ignore them. I am under no illusion that I still have a lot to learn, and I thoroughly enjoy my continued involvement with the NDBKA training apiary. Having the time with the bees and learning the prevailing methods before becoming a beekeeper also allowed me to consider the way I wanted to take. Gradually the chaos in my mind cleared following discussions with one lovely lady in particular, and reading Tim Rowe’s ‘The Rose Hive Method’ in one sitting. Tim’s book is delightful and is one of those books that you would enjoy and smile at even if you weren’t into bees. Both characters painted a wonderful picture of the way I’d like to keep bees and my ambition is to get there one day.
Michael Bush’s 10 commandments can be found at http://www.bushfarms.com/beestencommandments.htm
A lot of Wally Shaw’s words can be found in past issues of the BBKA magazine In which I took a lot from his ‘Reader’s questions’ section. Even if the Q&A was wide of the path I want to take there was always a nugget of useful information in there. You can also find his writing via the excellent Welsh Beekeepers Association website. Their generously shared information can be found at:- http://www.wbka.com/
TIM ROWE & THE ROSE HIVE METHOD
The website is below, which will give you the background and links to some charming videos. I would urge you to buy the book. http://www.rosebeehives.com/
Sadly, Tim doesn’t keep bees intensely any longer, but if you want sustainable life envy here’s what he gets up to:- https://www.youtube.com/user/WayOutWestx2
The Lives Of Bees; https://www.northernbeebooks.co.uk/products/the-lives-of-bees-seeley/
*NOTE: No disrespect to the original authors. I am conscious that I am being a bit cheeky and that ‘if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants’, as Isaac Newton once said. I've withheld the names as although the original commandments are still obeyed by many I prefer to contrast them and not make it personal. The authors may even hold different views themselves now.