Bjorn Apiaries
Rock the Boat, Step on Toes, and Pull Back the Curtain.....


March 2013

February 2013


January 2013 - The Problem with "Hands-Off" Beekeeping

A way to change the Bee Industry….

June 2013


Every so often, something happens in each beekeepers journey, that bold, swift, and even drastic changes are made. Meeting a dynamic speaker, experiencing massive losses for the first time, or just slowing down to notice the obvious, sometimes sets the individual beekeeper on a different path in beekeeping.


This past spring, I experienced one of those moments. After losing a good number of hives in one particular bee yard this past winter, I was taking out a load of bees out to an orchard to replace the dead-outs. It was an early Sunday afternoon. The apple trees were just beginning to open. As I drove out into the orchard around noon, I was met by the farmer driving out through the rows of trees with his boom sprayer spraying the groundcover under the apple tree. I knew exactly what he doing. He was spraying the dandelions with herbicide.


At one time, a good orchardist would actually mow the dandelions down right before peak apple bloom. The idea is that any farmer paying for pollination wants bees on the intended crops, and not on such plants as dandelions. But the increased cost of gas and multiple or weekly cuttings are expensive and easily replaced by massive spraying. But it is these ignorant farmers that want to kill off the competing flowers that are also spraying at a time when they are killing off the very same bees they are paying for to have on their farm.


While I can not expect all farmers to stop using chemicals, there are better ways of using them. And with this farmer I have had previous discussions about early morning spraying being best when bees are not active. Or evening spraying when winds die down allowing better coverage, and bees are less active.


All farmers say they spray at certain times, or with products that are bee friendly. But time and time again, I drive out mid-day to check bees and see boom sprayer going full blast through the orchards. Simply stated, not all farmers tell the truth and many just tell you what they know what you want to hear. They lie to you. They need too. If they told the truth, you probably would not have bees on the property or they might even think they could be liable for all the dead hives. So they lie.


Earlier this year I was contacted by a “new” apple grower who just planted a few hundred trees and wanted to know if anyone from the local club would be interested. He was offering his orchard as a place for a beekeeper to keep some bees for free. How nice of him. This is a cycle I have seen many times. A commercial operation offers for a new and upcoming beekeeper, the guy that just went from 5 hives to 20 and is looking for a new bee yard, a chance to have his bees on an apple orchard as if this was a great place to keep bees. The new beekeeper jumps at the chance. It goes well the first year or two. Then they starts losing bees. By the third or fourth year, the beekeeper wonders why the bees are dying every year. By year five, the bees are pulled off the farm. Then the farmer seeks a new “sap” to provide him pollination in exchange for this “premium” location. And the cycle is repeated every 5 years or so.

If beekeepers want change in the bee industry, then they need to realize that commercial farms are not the best location to keep bees. They need to quit doing the local pollination for family farms, many times for nothing more than thinking that it is a good honey location. They need to get smart and realize what is happening.


Years ago, farmers who needed bees, became beekeepers. Maybe that is what should happen again. I can bet you that if farmers themselves had a vested interest in the bees on their farm, their management and procedures on the farm would change. I bet they would make changes if it was their bees being sprayed in the afternoon. If beekeeper just simply quit pollinating for farmers, huge changes could be made. I’m not talking about the huge commercial migratory beekeepers although that certainly would be effective. I’m talking about the vast majority of beekeepers who do pollination locally for family farms and smaller operations.


That change will never come about as long as there is always the next new crop of beginner beekeepers willing to do the job for free. So the farmers will continue lying, ignorant beekeepers will come and go, and the bee industry will not change. Farmers will continue to act stupid by scratching their heads as they ask you each spring “what happened to the bees?” while knowing they do what they want as they have no vested interest as long as you bring out new bees every spring.


Make farmers become beekeepers. Make them responsible for their own actions by having a vested interest in their actions by keeping their own bees. When farmers themselves see the impacts of their actions and products, then perhaps change will come about.


Right now it is the beekeeper paying the price every year with dead hives. The farmers have no vested interest. Every year beekeepers think that some research, some new product, or some better management by the beekeeper is going to make the difference. Beekeepers are the ultimate optimists. But there will be no magic bee, no “silver bullet” product, and no amount of mite monitoring or treating that will stop the losses. The one thing that might make a difference is get your bees off farms, and force farmers to be their own beekeepers. That is one piece of the puzzle. Unfortunately there are many pieces to the story.


Beekeeper Rants, Opinions, and Comments.


This is a continuation of the Beekeeper Ramblings page that include articles from 2009 through 2012 and found on other pages of this website.


These articles hopefully invoke discussion, debate, and thought.

While we are not out to purposely harm any particular individual, we do express views that some would see as a bit "close to home". All were writen as the time period dictated, and we preseve them in original format for future reference and consideration as times change. We hope you enjoy. 


The Problem with “Hands Off” Beekeeping

January 2013


Over the past 10 or so years, there have been groups of beekeepers who have promoted the idea that the bees would be healthier if it were not for the meddling beekeeper disturbing the bees every so often. Where has this started, thinking that not knowing what is in your hive is somehow the best approach to take? Stress is certainly being mentioned as an item of interest from the research surrounding CCD. But much of that stress is centered on the movement of bees in migratory beekeeping. The stress of moving beehives sometimes number double digits for the times a hive is moved per year. Stress of the colony include impacts associated with mono-agricultural and poor pollen, inadequate feed, and dearths seen in vast holding yards, which are all associated with commercial operations. But it is not the commercial bee industry that you hear mention of a “hands-off” approach in beekeeping. It is the backyard beekeepers. Is this a way to set themselves apart from those “nasty” commercial types with the idea that “we” are doing things better for the bees?


Stress placed upon beehives come from various items for the backyard beekeeper and smaller operations. They include pests such as varroa mites, small hive beetles, and tracheal mites. Other stress factors are disease issues associated with more than 17 viruses and bacterial conditions we know of. Then there are the pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and countless other chemicals that honey bees come in contact with. On top of the overwhelming amount of chemicals including neonicotinoids with farming today, you have west Nile mosquito spraying, emerald ash borer spraying, black fly spray programs, just to name a few.


Just trying to cope with these issues, places huge amounts of stress upon the bees. Hygienic bees, including those that can detect mites inside capped cells, are able to remove highly infected larvae. A certain amount of brood is lost resulting in smaller than normal cluster sizes. Brood rearing is impacted as less brood can be kept warm. Less honey is collected making feeding less nutritious feed such as sugar a reality for many beekeepers. Bees spend more time dealing with grooming, chasing small hive beetles, and dragging out the dead. Bee duties are impacted as bees need to constantly adjust to hive demands after losing bees to one issue or another. And the resources used dealing with these issues places a great demand on the hive to overcome these items and still collect enough stores to over winter. These stress issues can even dictate what efforts are made in what to collect. Honey bee colonies dealing with small hive beetles collect more propolis as they try to confine the beetles into corners and seal them off.


The list of stresses placed upon the hive today in beekeeping is tremendous. But I have not heard any rational or reliable information about the stresses of opening up the hive. I know some beekeeping protocols such as with Warre beekeeping suggests opening the hive just a few time per year. This protocol is outdated and comes from a time when Warre did not deal with varroa mites, small hive beetles, neonicotinoid pesticides, and a host of other issues as seen in beekeeping today.


You have those beekeepers pushing “hand off” beekeeping in some idea that it is the beekeeper themselves that are placing all the stress on the bees. As if opening up the hive every couple weeks is what is causing most of the problems in beekeeping today. And that if beekeepers would take a hands off approach, while feeling all warm and fuzzy about promoting some “less stressful” way of keeping bees, all the stars will align and bees will be better for it.


What probably started as some “less stressful” beekeeping approach in having beekeepers place less chemicals in the hives (a good thing) while using more natural approaches of actually dealing with beehive issues, has now turned into some idea that completely ignoring the bees all summer is in the bees best interest. Some have a personal agenda in this approach as they promote bee classes, sell certain hive setups and books, and attempt to advance their “niche” way of beekeeping trying to set themselves apart from other beekeepers.


What I have found, is that many beekeepers with this hands off approach still lose massive amounts of bees. I have many beekeepers ask for help after losing honey bee colonies. In trying to give a somewhat educated guess as to what happened after the fact, I ask probing questions. They include questions of a timeline of the hive focused on such items as when was the last time you saw brood, how long did it take for the cluster to dwindle, and locations of dead bees. Was there swarming, are the bees kept near certain crops, and what was the mite level? Were there signs of stress diseases? Additional question are asked based upon previous questions being answered.


Far too many beekeepers are telling me they have no real information to offer because they have decided to take some “hands-off” approach of beekeeping. They have resorted to assuming the bees are healthy by watching pollen come into the hive, and by thinking that many bees translates into a healthy hive. They have heard the term “hands-off” a number of times, while being told that opening the hive is stressful to the bees, and have assumed that doing nothing is the best approach in beekeeping. Ignorance is not always bliss. It might be for a short time, or at least till you find your colonies dead. But that “bliss” is quickly lost.


The reality is that stress is magnified in the hive by the beekeeper NOT going into the hives on a regular basis. The overloaded situation of so many pests and impacting issues placed upon the hive was something that nature would of never done on it’s own. One pest might take decades to travel across a continent. And some would never get beyond the shores of one continent to the next. What humans have done is transport bee diseases around the world at a level that is devastating to honey bees. So to place all the issues at the front of the hive as we have done, then tell the bees they are on their own, is questionable.


Not knowing the sometimes fast exploding mite levels in your hive, noticing disease later than you should, not realizing that your bees are encapsulating bee bread in the hive, and not knowing if your hive swarmed, all plays into stressful situations that do nothing to help your bees. And you being completely ignorant or clueless of the happenings in your hive for the mere fact that you think that not opening your hive is a good thing, does nothing to help your bees.


Bees in nature die for a host of reasons. No doubt that some of those reasons can be directly linked back to human impact. Sometimes it is pesticides, sometimes disease. Sometimes a queen just gets killed and the hive never gets back to being queen right after supersedure. But some of those issues can be minimized if the beekeeper actually knew these issues were at play.

I keep several observation hives at state parks and other locations. Almost daily, folks are watching the bees. Children occasionally tap on the glass. And I am amazed that these hives thrive all year long. You would think that if stress placed upon bees from opening a hive was that damaging as some claim, these observation hives would crash in short time. But they do not.


Is there a proper way to open a hive, inspect, and enjoy your bees? Absolutely. Inspecting your bees with the bees best interest in mind is a good thing. Minimizing comb damage, not chilling brood, and even preventing robbing from starting, are all things to consider when inspecting your bees. But to ignore your bees, and missing the knowledge that you gain, benefits nobody, including the bees.


If you want to be a “hands off” beekeeper, that is your choice. But why worry about why they died after the fact? Why try to piece together the circumstances when you had no knowledge as it happened? The reasons bees die are many. And many of these reasons can be avoided if the beekeeper actually was doing their job, instead of doing nothing and expecting bees to survive on their own. Sure some bees always make it. But many die for no other reason than a beekeeper being lazy, taking the easy way out, and believing that inspecting a beehive is a bad thing.


I do not use chemicals in the hive. Some have translated that into a “do-nothing” approach to beekeeping. And there is nothing correct about that. Not using chemicals and standard treatment just means that you use other measures to deal with mites. Certain equipment options, the right genetics, the right management, all take the place of not treating for mites. The “hands-off” approach and thinking your bees will all survive on their own is a false assumption. You will have some make it. I have seen that many times. Nature has a way of allowing some survive from one year to the next. But that is far from thinking that you should not open your hives and do the best to your ability to help your bees when needed. We have placed upon the bees way more than they can sometimes handle. And it should be your responsibility to know what is happening in your hive. It is good for the bees, the public, and your bottom line. Scratching your head after ignoring your beehives all summer benefits nobody, including your bees. And it is no way to become a better beekeeper. Your goal should not to be in “bliss” by being ignorant. “Ignorance is bliss” is not a goal, but rather an excuse for those that are ignorant.


Inspecting the correct way allows you to identify problems, and act accordingly so you can help the bees when needed. You should know when pesticides are impacting your bees, when they have swarmed, and when they might need some help. While I try to help my bees as little as possible, I still do help when needed. That is my job as a beekeeper.

If you take a “hands off” approach, perhaps you should keep your hands in your pockets. Because you might be digging deep to replace those hives every year.