Alternative Thinking

Throughout recorded human history there were very few special men and women that understood the honey bee and how to keep them well enough to be called a Master Beekeeper. In ancient Egypt the Pharaoh’s apiaries were cared for by a select few Master Beekeepers and they were held in similar regards as temple priests. I would argue that it might have been a bit easier to keep bees in those days and still those select few were looked upon as mystical. As I work towards my Master Beekeeper Certification, it has become vividly clear to me why only a very few special men and women ever reach that level. They are able to “think” differently or as I say, “Break the code” of beekeeping. The ability to understand the concept and philosophy of working with honey bees. Most of all, to realize that the art of keeping bees is unlike any other form of animal husbandry. There is nothing we do as humans with animals, plants or anything else- that is remotely similar to keeping bees. As beekeepers we must disregard everything we know about any other form of animal husbandry. There is nothing we know in that area that will apply to bees. Believe me, I have tried for years to compare beekeeping to some other form of keeping livestock or pets. I wanted to say, “It’s just like keeping chickens” and give some examples. It just doesn’t apply-there is a reason we never hear the phase “Master Chicken Keeper”.
I feel we have to think differently about keeping bees. A different mind set, understanding that honey bees are unlike anything else we keep. How do honey bees and keeping them differ so much from the other creatures we keep?
First of all they are insects and their life cycles and the life cycle of the colony as a whole is different. There are individual bees being born and dying constantly in a colony. Workers only live weeks during the Summer, Drones don’t fair much better. Good queens are old in 2 or 3 years. Even wild colonies established for years, naturally die out from time to time. A colony can be considered a single living organism made up of 1,000 of individuals but it is not like a pet cat. The cat, as a single living organism, will live for years and our focus of managing and keeping a cat is focused on that expectation. With a colony of bees the natural order of life is not the focus of the life span of any individual in the colony. The only purpose of each individual is to give their life for the colony and the colony’s only purpose is to give it’s life for the species. The workers work as hard as they can then die, the queen lays a many eggs as she can then dies, the colony produces as many other colonies as it can then dies. They all die relatively quickly and all of this is obsoletely the completely natural flow of life for this species of creature. We as keepers must understand, work with, and manage that natural flow of life and death.
When you buy a package, and hold the queen cage in your hand. Look at her and understand this particular queen will most likely be dead within a year. Realizing that this is a natural order of events, we as keepers use management methods to prevent it from ending the life of the colony as a whole. One of the skills of a keeper is the ability to “tweak” the natural order of a colony. There are no management methods that will keep an old queen alive and viable past her natural life span. The method is to replace her with a new queen before she gets to the end of her life. Doing so allows the colony as a whole a chance to continue living on with a new queen. There are other managements we use as keepers to enhance colony survival such as feeding during droughts and winters, reducing entrances during hornets and robbing, treating for mites, etc. Most of all remember, our bees are unlike any other kind of animal husbandry. So think differently.

Published by

Ernie Schmidt

Together we are about to start down the path of Alternative Beekeeping. Each month I will discuss and share the joys, methods, philosophies, and realities of keeping bees in Top Bars and Warres, along with other different and unique hive styles and methods. There will be times I get straight to the point and other times I will meander about, but always remember - "It’s all about the bees"

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