Beekeeper vs. honey bee: Working against nature

We beekeepers love our bees, of this there’s no doubt. Why is it then that we tend to work against their natural tendencies? Today, I would like to offer you two ideas that the books teach that are contrary to nature.

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swarm of honey bees in a pine tree
A swarm that I was determined not to let fly away! Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

It’s a wonderful thing to be a beekeeper and have your nose stuck in a hive, to see the inner workings that most people do not have the privilege of experiencing.

Unfortunately, the mainstream of beekeeping education has created some unfortunate habits among us beekeepers that contradict the bees’ natural tendencies.


The 2 Didactic teachings of beekeeping

#1- Swarms are a bad thing

Don’t do what I did!

I have always been one to take advantage of the bees’s tendency to swarm by making splits with the swarm cells and/or the older queen.

I even learned a method that is used very little these days, to make a hive want to swarm really bad, and have them raise grafted queen cells WITH the original queen still in the hive!

During my first spring in the north Georgia mountains, upon my first hive inspections of the year, I found all of my 15 or so hives with swarm cells.

I wasn’t ready for this! And I had my own plans about when to re-queen…and this wasn’t the time.

swarm in a pine tree
Most of my swarms usually land in the pine tress directly in front of the apiary. Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

So I went through squashing swarm cells left and right. And do you know what happened? No one swarmed!

But I also put my hives back a full month in productivity because I had ‘prevented swarms’ too late…they had already done so. And now they each had to raise more queen cells to replace the ones I squashed. That sucked!

And to make matters worse, the timing could not have been worse; they had to raise a queen when they should have been making honey during our spring nectar/honey flow.

The most honey I’ve ever made!

So this year during 2019, I did absolutely nothing about preventing my hives from swarming. Upon first inspections I discovered that of my 30 hives, 90% had already swarmed!

My inspection was timed after each hive had already hatched a new queen but before she began laying. So I had virtually zero young brood in my hives.

I left them to their own devices and eventually the season brought us to our first honey/nectar flow. I harvested honey from only 25 of my 30 something hives and it came to be about 75 gallons!

blackberry honey
I filled this 55-gallon drum, then harvested 20 more gallons of Blackberry honey! Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

And this was a sustainable harvest. I didn’t even pull the honey from their brood nest and didn’t use queen excluders.

Eventually our summer honey/nectar flow came and I harvested about 95 gallons! Again, a sustainable harvest from about 25 hives.

My lesson was twofold: Yes it was good weather and a good bloom BUT it had not mattered that they had swarmed and had to start fresh. It was certainly less work for me (until it came time to harvest).

The second part of that lesson was this: the fact that 90% of my hives had swarmed didn’t hurt me, my operation, the hives and certainly not my harvest.


The 3 benefits of allowing swarms (for nature’s sake):

First- An undisturbed colony

It is well studied and proved that highly productive colonies outperform ones that are disturbed on a regular basis.

The only limit feral colonies have is the size of the area they chose to make a nest because obviously there’s no one to add more boxes.

More could be said about this here but I will refer you to another post of mine: The 7 Methods of Minimal Disturbance. These methods have proven true for me but more importantly…for my bees.

Second- Natural cell size

I’ve very recently become aware of people who are ‘adamant’ about NOT allowing swarms into the wild. They say that they spread disease and become Varroa magnets.

top bar from beehive
My first top bar hive, making their own comb! Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

There is definitely some truth to this. Feral colonies cannot be treated for mites. However, diseased colonies do not swarm, they die in your hive bodies.

Here is something to keep in mind though:

It is also shown that a smaller cell size in a colony helps to combat against high Varroa mite counts.

At the moment, it seems that Varroa is here to stay for awhile. But I will tell you that a smaller cell size helps against higher mite counts compared to mite coutns that occur in beehives employing predetermined cell sizes.

ConvertKit

I have practiced with Warre and Top Bar hives, allowing them to build their own comb foundations. I do not have nearly the high mite count that my Langstroths do.

So I believe it’s safe to surmise that it must be a similar situation with a feral colony.

Third- Propolis shield

Propolis is one of the world’s strongest defenses against harmful bio-organisms.

Propolis is a super-substance. It is not only anti-fungal but anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial as well.

Honey bees coat the inside of their hive with propolis. It’s their way of keeping their home germ-free.

It’s also something that gets in the way of beekeepers operations during hive inspections. It makes it difficult to pry apart boxes and remove frames. In fact, it’s the only reason we need to use a hive tool!

Many times, beekeepers (myself included) scrape this stuff out of the way so we can work more effectively. But imagine how a feral colony, undisturbed doesn’t have to worry about this interference.

Also imagine the hollow tree of a feral colony lined with this propolis, creating a healthy, clean homeostatic environment to ward off disease.

Honey bees especially love to propolize their hive entrance. I personally feel that this is like having a ‘decontamination-door mat‘ if you will, as they enter the hive.


#2- Bees must be fed

I have fed bees literally thousands of gallons of supplemental feed in the past. As an apprentice in the commercial beekeeping industry, high fructose corn syrup was our choice.

As the years passed by and I learned more about the pesticides in that corn syrup and their effect on my bees, I came to hate it.

So when I ventured off on my own, I swore to never use corn syrup in my hives. I chose non-heated sugar syrup instead. That became costly for me and very time-consuming.

Eventually, as my personal beekeeping methods changed, I unintentionally discovered ways in which I didn’t NEED to supplement my bees with feed unless it was an emergency.

But I was always thinking ahead about feeding my bees because that’s just what you do as a beekeeper!

But guess what? As I began keeping less hives per apiary, I found that my bees had more than enough food. I now no longer feed my bees at all unless it’s a rainy spring and they cannot get out to forage for Maple pollen.

I have found that letting bees do what they do best by design has been the greatest discovery in my beekeeping operation ever!

After all, honey bees are FORAGERS. It’s another thing that they do best!


I no longer freak out when my bees are swarming. That doesn’t mean that I won’t take advantage of making some splits with swarm cells or catching swarms.

It just means that I let nature be natural. And I’m happier as a beekeeper as a result.

I still treat for mites but have found that the ‘brood break’ that occurs from my hives re-queening themselves in the early spring has proven extremely effective in battling mite counts.

I’m not telling you to change your whole operation or anything like that. But next time you see your hive swarming, remember that’s what they do.

Until next time remember,

~Weeds are Wildflowers, let them Bee!~

Jonathan Hargus/Occasional swarm catcher

2 Thoughts

  1. Fantastic post! Great to read your findings and how they have informed your methodologies with beekeeping 🙂

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