What does it mean to create hive ecology?
In nature, swarms of bees, when having a preference, will choose a location previously lived in by other honey bees. Why? Hive Ecology. Inside, as an example, a tree hollow. There are reportedly 8,000 different microbes living inside the hive.
If we think about it logically, that makes sense. In nature, there are no humans that go in to clean the hive. Instead, the honey bees must live in harmony with other organisms that assist in cleaning the hive.
A way honey bees create an ecology inside their hive is with propolis. In nature, the inside of a hive is coated with propolis – this helps with insulation, but propolis has an important health benefit to the bees. It increases their immune system.
As we know, honey bees are very clean – but no matter how clean you are – you are still going to create a slight mess. The bottom of the tree hollow is a debris field – where perhaps dead bees, wax, ants, and other organisms feed on. A natural hive, normally has one opening – and it stays that way for the rest of their occupancy. Honey bees can themselves make the hole bigger or smaller by the use of propolis.
Data shows that if a swarm lasts through its first winter(about one in every 4), it has an expected life expectancy of 5+ years – with no human intervention.
In a managed hive, honey bees are placed inside a wooden box (these days, maybe even plastic, foam, or cardboard.) And for some reason – we as beekeepers like ‘our’ hive a certain way. (it’s their hive, by the way). So we clean off brace comb, we add an extra hole for them, we change their entrance throughout the year, we may rearrange their home, and several different ‘management styles’.
Its pretty clear that honey bees have been around longer than we have. So why do we have this need to ‘change’ their whole living situation? In effect, we are inadvertently changing their hive ecology, and very possibly – actually making them sicker and more susceptible to disease.
Now, granted, beekeepers love bees – but they are not pets – they are not domestic animals. So when we change ‘their’ home, we need to do it with a reasonable purpose and their biology in mind. In most respects, the old saying holds true – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
So what are some ways you and I can create a better hive ecology for our bees?
Now, like most things, more research is needed to truly see what we are doing wrong and what we are doing right, but here are a few logical steps we can take.
Turn their hive into a tree.
The inside of a hive (we use a langstroth hive- so let’s go with that example) is almost polished wooden the inside and outside – there is no place to add propolis (a good amount of it – we are not talking about the typical areas like between box slits and on comb). So what we do is carve out ‘tree grains’ inside the wood. These are carvings that are less than 3/8 inch, so the honeybees add their propolis and create a healthier living area for them.
Don’t be too quick to remove frames.
There is a delicate balance between removing ‘old’ comb- and removing a good comb that looks old. Keep in mind, over time; the comb becomes more desirable to the honey bees. They add propolis to the comb and after many cycles of births – the comb gets darker and darker.
A good rule of thumb is to change it every three years. But do it in cycles – that way, there will be a good amount of ‘good’ comb in the brood nest, instead of all new comb every 3 years. An example would be for a ten frame brood box – every year to replace 2-3 frames with new frames.
You also do not want to leave the frame for longer than 5 years. A good rule of thumb is the oldest frame is 3 – 5 years. We start at three years and rotate new frames in on yearly cycles. We can push it to 5 or 6 years since we are not using pesticides or fungicides inside our hives – but we still want to replace them because they are bringing in small quantities of them from the surrounding areas (unfortunately, not much you can do with that).
If you are using chemicals for mite control – I would stick with 3 years.
Also, we do not put a top hole during the winter – now we can do this because we use wooden inner covers with inner ventilation and a telescoping lid – for beekeepers using migratory lids – you may need a top hole depending on your setup.
Remember, trees do not have top holes – having a top hole will actually increase the honey supply need since they have to work harder during the winter to keep warm – also – not all condensation is bad – where do you think bees get water from during the winter? Stores and condensation – if they do not have any – they may make a flight on warmer days – but it can be dangerous, and they may not make it back.
Use longer bottoms – in a tree hollow – (or in any area) honey bees build from top to bottom, and there is a more significant gap on the bottom of their hive than what is used on standard Langstroth hives. To assist with this – we use Slatted boards in all our Langstroth hives – to increase ventilation and help with adding cooler temperatures in summers and warmer temperatures in winters.
You can see an example of our hives we sell here – we use this setup on all our established hives: http://126.96.36.199/product/emmett-royal-honey-cypress-beehives/
Another item to help with hive ecology – do not feel you have to ‘clean’ everything for the bees – they will clean it themselves. A good rule of thumb – if it’s there – do not remove it =). Unless it’s interfering with your inspections – leave it alone. This includes brace comb or anything else like that – if the bees put it there – they want it there. Again, if it is hindering you from removing the box or removing frames – go ahead – but otherwise, leave it alone.
The only thing we clean is the bottom board – we clean that once a year – generally in early spring. Although, to be honest, it may be best not to clean it at all or maybe every five years, that would include modifying the Langstroth hive design – I think we may test that idea out in the future.
Overall, we feel one of the keys of not using chemicals and having healthy honey bees is keeping the hive ecology strong – there is much focus on the honey bees microbiome – we sometimes forget the hives ecology has a bearing on their health – including their microbiome.
Honey bees are a fantastic creature that provides wonder and an awe-inspiring view of their design.