What is biodynamic beekeeping?

All the hoopla surrounding the difference between a bee-“keeper” and a bee-“haver” is laid to rest by the proponents of biodynamic beekeeping. According to an article in the Green Guide, the aim of biodynamic beekeeping is “to minimize stress factors and allow bees to develop in accordance with their true nature.”

Proponents of biodynamic beekeeping, such as practical-crafts teacher Keith Gelber of Chico, insist that biodynamic beekeepers neither “have” nor “keep” bees but simply provide them with “a clean place to live.” Gelber likes to think of himself as a bee “steward.”

Gelber keeps bees in accordance with the Demeter International Bee Standards. This group maintains a strict set of rules that must be followed in order for honey to bear their seal of approval. All types of standards are spelled out including how bees are raised, how honey is processed, and what containers may be used . . . interesting reading if you have a few minutes.

A few points:

  • Natural combs are used, rather than foundation.
  • Swarming is recognized as the natural form of colony reproduction.
  • Clipping of queen’s wings is prohibited.
  • Regular and systematic queen replacement is prohibited.
  • Pollen substitutes are prohibited.
  • Beehives must be made of all natural materials, such as wood, straw, or clay.
  • Artificial insemination is not used. Instead queens are allowed to fly free to mate.
  • Grafting of larvae to produce queens is prohibited.
  • No pesticides or antibiotics are allowed, although the use of natural organic acids such as formic and oxalic acid may be used for mite control.
  • Honey may be transported in containers made of artificial materials but must be decanted into containers of glass or metal for retail sale.

Gelber takes surplus honey from the hive only in the spring after the bees use what they need—an idea that makes a lot of sense but requires a world of self-discipline. And since I am not fond of storing food in plastic, I found the bit about honey containers fascinating.

An eight-page .pdf of the “Demeter International Standards for Beekeeping and Hive Products” can be downloaded from the biodynamic.org.uk website. Even though I don’t agree with everything they advocate, the document is succinct and casts a different hue on the subject of natural beekeeping.

Rusty

Comments

Doug
Reply

If they only collect honey in the spring, don’t they have to heat it, since it is crystallized? Doesn’t heating honey kill all the good Karma and vital life force needed to connect with the cosmos and the universal mind, as one spiritual being for the greater good of all creatures, large and small, in the universe?

Oommm

Rusty
Reply

Doug,

You bring up an excellent point. Not all honey crystallizes, however, so it would depend on your particular honey. None of my honey has ever crystallized, at least so far. Some of it is five or six years old. But some honey crystallizes almost immediately so, yes, that would be a consideration. How fast honey crystallizes depends on the ratio of fructose to glucose in the nectar. Higher glucose levels mean faster crystallization. It all depends on what flowers the bees collected from.

Bill Huhman
Reply

Everyone is welcome to keep bees in the way they deem best. That doesn’t make a method morally superior. For the record, using oxalic acid as a miticide is currently illegal in the US. The really hardcore beekeeping group centered in Arizona prohibits the use of any miticides whatsover–truth is in the eye of the believer…

Bill

Rusty
Reply

Bill,

You are correct that oxalic acid is illegal as an acaricide in the United States, however it is legal in many other countries.

Jeff
Reply

What propensity does white clover, golden rod and fireweed have towards crystalization? These are the most common nectar sources for mid to late season.

Thanks

Rusty
Reply

Jeff,

This is what I’ve heard or read–I have no firsthand knowledge:

Goldenrod: extremely quick to crystallize
White clover: fairly quick to crystallize
Fireweed: slow to crystallize, but it will eventually

Bill Huhman
Reply

Here in Ohio, opinion is mixed whether it’s the goldenrod or the asters which bloom concurrently which cause fast crystallization. Whatever does it, a bucket of these honeys will sometimes set up in less than 3 days! The taste is extraordinary for folks who enjoy a rich fall honey. (Makes a good mead, too.)

Bill

farmerbillohio.com/drupal7

twitter: farmerbillohio

Rusty
Reply

Goldenrod is in the Aster family (Asteraceae) so it could be either or both.

Jeff
Reply

Thanks, folks.

elisha reverby
Reply

Love this article BUT with all those great restrictions acid is allowed in the hive for mite control? are you kidding me! This is a crime and how dare anyone use acid in a hive. Let the bees be bees. Let the mites be mites and let nature take its course. Survival of the fittest should always be the m.o. This is wildlife. Nature. Stop trying to control it!

Rusty
Reply

Elisha,

I, too, was surprised to learn that biodynamic beekeepers allow the use of organic acids as acaricides in the hive, and I can certainly understand your objection.

Even so, I believe you are over-reacting to the word “acid”—a term with many negative connotations. Probably the most acid substance in a hive is honey. On average, the pH of honey hovers around 3.5—surprisingly strong.

You can think of an acid as a proton donor and a base as a proton acceptor. This is highly simplified, but it helps to visualize the world around you. Most solutions are either acidic or basic—some a lot, some a little. It’s the way the world works. Acid is not a dirty word.

Formic acid, one of the substances mentioned for use as an acaricide, is a natural component of honey. In fact, that is why it can be used on the hive while honey supers are in place. Formic acid is even allowed as a food additive by the USDA.

You personally carry around a really, really powerful acid with you every day—in your stomach. I don’t know the concentration or pH of the preparations the article mentioned, but they probably are not any more acid than the honey and not anywhere near the acidity of your stomach.

I personally do not advocate that someone use organic acid preparations if they don’t want to. It’s a personal thing. But I do not see their use as cruel or immoral. As for cruel, I can’t think of anything worse than having your blood slowly sucked away by a bunch of parasitic mites.

Jeff
Reply

I agree with Rusty. While I do not plan to use anything like this on my colonies, formic acid is pretty benign compared to what the bees are being exposed to. Formic acid is volatile so it evaporates fairly quickly. If a person is that concerned, take the capped frames out and store for a couple of days in a place where the bees cannot get them and the formic acid will drop back to natural levels. Once out of the hive there is little to no formic acid in the vapor space so it should evaporate readily at room temperature.

suz
Reply

Is anyone dealing with bears? I live in a suburban neighborhood in Pennsylvania and a bear knocked apart my hives twice within 3 days. I would like to hear your experience. Game Commision is coming with a trap.

Rusty
Reply

Suz,

We have bears in our area, but so far (keep fingers crossed) I haven’t had a run-in with them. Anyone else have bear problems?

Keith
Reply

Rusty,
I want to personally thank you for this write up.

I would also like to note that although we are allowed to use these acids, we avoid them. They are just another tool in our tool box.

Things like Thyme oil are fat soluble, and wax being a fat absorbs the fumes from these essential oils. When these oils are used (oils are acids, thyme being pH 3.5) they leave behind residues in the wax and wood. When mites survive these “organic” mite treatments, and then breed in the wax that has collected residues, we begin to breed mites resistant to such treatments. Formic acid leaves no residues in wax or wood and is one of the most common acids known to man, found in nearly if not every natural item we know of.

I tend to harvest in late spring, so I know there is a honey flow and what ever honey is left over from winter is true surplus. I also harvest during the summer months if my hives have 3 full supers, I will take 2 of the 3. I like to over winter my hives with 1 full super, and if they have a hard winter and burn through a lot of there food, I will feed with a feed that I make myself. If they are entering winter with less then a full super, I will feed for winter storing. Also, I am located in California, where it isn’t all that cold in the spring, so crystallizing isn’t that big of an issue, at least not in my experience. I do not heat honey.

I am a fan of the idea of not treating the hives ever, and would love to reach this ideal, but the truth is they are in need. If I had a child extremely ill, or with a life threatening parasite, I wouldn’t say “all right child, you got this, tough it out kiddo!” and hope they make it through. Although I do not use any antibiotics in the hive at all, they have saved my life more then once in serious situations. So I find the sparing use of these acids of no consequence, and far less serious then using an item such as Thymol, Check Mite, or Apistan. I tend to blend my own organic powdered sugar for mite treatments in the heat of the summer, and only if deeply needed.

As for feeding, I know that there are a lot of beekeepers out there that are against feeding all together. My stance is this, to me it doesn’t matter how fat or fit you are, if we leave you in the Sahara desert and tell you we will come back in 2 weeks time to pick you up, there will be no you when we return. In times of dirth, the world is a desert to the bees. I would not like to watch my children starve to death simply because it is of my opinion that I should not feed them, that they need to learn how to eat and find food them selves. I do like to grow plants late so that there is something blooming close to the hives during this dry time.

I personally have a hard time with the words “Natural beekeeping”, and it is totally a semantics thing. Once we “keep” anything, it is not natural in the least, and this is not a bad thing so to say. We do not let our children run wild and grow up to be feral. We mow our lawns and prune our trees. Some of us garden and the very act of gardening is a work against nature, for we remove what we do not want to grow and we plant what we do want. We force our will upon the earth, this is not “natural”. We as humans do not have an experience nor a memory or record of how life was when bees were still purely wild. This is non existent. But what we do know is that for as long as we have had recorded history of mankind, we have had recorded history of bees and the work they do. We have always seen it as a codependent relationship between man, nature and bee. We have a responsibility to these little ones, for without them so much would be lost.

With all that said, I do not believe that one way or another way of raising the honey bee is superior, better, or more whole. What I can say is what works for me, and for those I work with. In Bio-Dynamics, we do not view production as our gauging point of what works but rather on the overall health of the colony, for it is the health of the colony and of the bees that matters, and a healthy colony will perform in a healthy, balanced way.

Again, Thank you Rusty for this wonderful post, and thank you everyone for participating in the dialogue, it is eye opening as well as heart warming to see.

Keith Gelber
Beekeeper Rudolf Steiner College
Founder of BDBEES

Rusty
Reply

Keith,

I have been working on two posts, one on natural beekeeping and one on the ethics of beekeeping. They are both in draft form and I don’t know when they’ll be done. But the weird thing is that your comments are so similar to the material in those posts, it is creepy. Eerily creepy. It’s almost like you read my mind (or read my notes!). Anyway, once I get them done, you can tell me what you think.

Meantime, thanks for the compliments!

Keith
Reply

Rusty,
When will these articles be completed?

Warmly,
Keith

Rusty
Reply

Keith,

One is complete and was published on September 9. I got so much hate mail after I published it, that I have since password protected it. Oddly enough, since then Bee Craft Magazine has asked permission to publish it in their December issue. Anyway, I will e-mail you the password.

Jeri
Reply

Sweet post, I would also love to read the articles you mentioned above Rust, and I agree completely with Keith’s response. Though I understand your reluctance to share more far and wide, especially considering the past hate sent your way, I strongly urge you to keep speaking out loud. We desperately need more voices like yours at this time. Please take courage and when you do, be sure to let some of us know when and where these articles are so we can support you. As a biodynamic bee ‘steward’ I will gladly speak up, retweet, like, repost, comment etc.
…. I suspect our larger ‘hive’ will too :-)

Rusty
Reply

Thanks for your support, Jeri. I decided to lift the passwords . . . will have it done shortly.

carol
Reply

Very interesting for me to read all of this. I just started with bees last March 2013. So far my mentor has been very helpful to me. We did treat my hive with formic acid and I did feed a bit in late fall. I sincerely hope my bees are still healthy in the spring. I did lose my queen but the hive produced a good queen on their own.

Lindy Lou van der Meulen
Reply

Hi Rusty, Thank you very much for publishing the posts concerning a more nature-friendly approach to keeping bees. I have read and saved the Demeter UK document too. Very handy. I too would be extremely interested in reading the article you have written that you mentioned that you had to protect against negative mailers. When I have said in the past to club members and my first mentor that I wanted my bees to only produce and use their own wax because of pesticide residues in bought foundation wax that is impossible to remove I got negative responses too. I was told by my mentor that this approach would cost me 20 lbs of honey!! He implied really that I was not alright in my head…… You have my support anyway.

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