Thoughts on natural beekeeping

Every day I read something like this: “I want to do it differently. I want to raise my bees without chemicals or foundation or syrup. I want all-natural bees.”

Some writers come across as arrogant or superior, others as naïve or apologetic. But regardless of the wording, I never know how to respond. After all, who doesn’t want all-natural bees?

In all my years, I have never heard a beekeeper say, “I want to raise chemically-dependent bees. I want to flood my hives with antibiotics, acaricides, and fumigants. I want my bees to feast on GMO syrup and soy-based pollen substitute.” Even those who believe in “better living through chemistry”—those who don’t believe man-made chemicals are a threat to health or environment—would rather do it the natural way. Why? Because nothing eats away at the bottom line faster than a truckload of patented propriety formulations.

So if we all want the same thing, why all the dissension, name-calling, and derision? In my opinion, the division between natural beekeepers and unnatural ones is artificial. We have tried to divide them into discrete groups—right and wrong, black and white, good and bad—but it doesn’t work.

I contend that we all fall on a line, a continuum that stretches from the very natural to the very unnatural. Far from being one or the other, we mostly fall in the middle between the two. Did you ever have a teacher who lined up your class by height, shortest to tallest? Think of it like that: no boxes, just nearly imperceptible increments of difference.

Where we fall on that line has to do with our experience, our resources, and our goals. Few similarities exist between a hobbyist in the San Francisco suburbs and a commercial beekeeper hoping to make the next house payment. One is dipping candles on the weekend; the other is trying to feed a nation. If one loses his bees, he buys more. If the other loses his bees, he goes bankrupt.

Where you fit on the naturalness line has a lot to do with the number of hives you manage. Let’s say you are a self-professed “natural beekeeper” controlling mites with powdered sugar. Powdering fifteen hives once a week with sugar dust feels very different than powdering three. When you get to 150 or 1500 hives, dusting becomes your life. (Although I have yet to understand how injecting beehives with refined and crushed table sugar is “natural,” I will leave that for another day.)

Do I believe that natural beekeeping is possible? Absolutely, but I think it doesn’t work for everyone. Being a beekeeper implies that you are caring for bees, and to do that you need knowledge, time, money, and the willingness to do uncomfortable things. A true natural beekeeper is highly knowledgeable and probably spends more effort per bee than any other group.

To me, it doesn’t matter where on the spectrum you fall, as long as you have a plan. Bees are in trouble, so in most cases doing nothing is not an option. If you do nothing, if you put bees in a box, ignore them, and mumble something about “survival of the fittest,” you are not a beekeeper—certainly not a natural one. If you are not willing to commit, you are simply enamored with the idea of beekeeping rather than beekeeping itself.

But no matter what you call yourself, I believe the plan is key. Will you feed your bees? If so, with what? How will you handle Varroa mites? What will you do about foulbrood, Nosema, tracheal mites? What will you do about predators, robbers, neighbors, snow, wind, and rain? You need to have a plan and see it through.

I am very accepting of alternative ideas and methods, but the only way I accept a so-called beekeeper walking away from his responsibility and saying, “let nature take its course” is if that person handles his own health and the health of his children in the very same way. If your child comes home from school with viral meningitis, and you just shrug and say “let nature take its course,” then maybe I will understand when you do the same to your bees.


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  • Given that European honey bees are an invasive species in the America’s brought over with the colonists, one could argue that no beekeeping outside of the species native range could ever be classed natural in any way…

  • Well done, Rusty. I feel like I want to add to what you’ve written, but the only thing that comes to mind is “Amen”!


  • There is a grey area between “medicate/treat” to keep bees alive and “coddling”. We had a speaker recently at our club who urged us to work the bees carefully and not pamper them (in regard to varroa and tracheal mite control). He was adamant that we MUST start breeding from survivor bees, or we will, in the absence of a truly effective silver bullet (rather than tin ones with loads of side effects), be stuck on a treatment treadmill forever. Survivor bee projects are effective, but they take land, bees, and money to run. The commercial beekeepers can’t afford to risk their bees and livelihood; the hobby beekeepers rarely have the land or numbers of stock to run a survivor bee project. I think, in the absence of effective and safe varroa control, the clubs need to organize, find land and bees and run survivor programs, distributing the survivor stock to club members. We are working on that where I live and it is one uphill battle.

  • Well said… :^) I am trying hard to be a Natural Beekeeper but to some that means small cell, no Plasticell, etc. I’m in my third year as an apprentice beekeeper & I’m doing everything I can to help my 26 colonies survive these trying times of Varroa and Neonicotinoids. I try to utilize a lot of common sense – I do drone comb removal (super frames in top deeps) during the Summer months as Varroa mites build, I have my screened bottom boards open most of the year and I apply 25g of Apiguard twice for each hive in September. During the last couple of years I’ve moved my hives to better year-round foraging locations (9 different property owners) so that they get good nutrition through a variety of pollen and nectar in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. I have tried the powder sugar dusting, not sure if it’s worth the effort. I try and remain flexible (adapt & overcome) and I continue to read everything I can find regarding research and new methods of helping Honey Bees. I get a lot of enjoyment from beekeeping & I enjoy very much your web page – Thank you Rusty.

    Brad Raspet

  • The whole subject is kinda silly, I think. If you put bees in a box, you are already NOT a “natural” bee keeper. If your find a swarm and put them in a box, you are not a “natural” bee keeper. The entire concept of “keeping” bees and harvesting honey is un natural unless you are a bear, in which case, you will kill the colony to get the honey. Or am I missing something?

    Are we “natural” bee keepers because we have had a feral hive in a tree for the last 5 years? That is “natural” bee keeping. Of course, we don’t get any honey from it. But, it’s “natural”. Or is it?

    Not to mention that wherever the feral hive came from, they aren’t native to north america. Oh, what a surprise, and neither are our “domestic” colonies “natural”

    Here’s a shock for my counter culture, self actualized friends,

    European honey bees in North America are domestic livestock.

    Get over it.

    We are as organic as we can reasonably be but it is a complex world and I give great thanks to the surgeon who did my last back surgery, or shoud I have had powdered sugar sprayed on me? Which, of course isn’t exactly natural either.

    Too harsh?

  • Natural beekeeping is still beekeeping. Providing swarms with hollow 40-litre cavities and let them to it is as natural as it gets but…

    Natural beekeeping is inspired by the “as natural” conditions within the hive nothing more nothing less.

    Top bar beekeeping is giving bees the freedom to build their own combs which results in various cell sizes. For some reason bees never build combs with mono-cell size.

    Honey bees fed on honey for at least 40 million years, not sugar syrup, honey.

    Bees swarm every year. That’s what they do and did for at least 40 million years. If swarming is out of question in urban areas, natural beeks will respect their need to reproduce and do a split. The result is a brood break.

    European bees prefer cavities of 40 litres as Seeley’s study is demonstrating. Most hives don’t respect this and are much bigger. The cavity is part of their biorhythm. The cavity is their body. By supering/nadiring/spacing we force the super-organism into expansion, creating way too many bees, too much extra work.
    I’m sure bees in a 40-litre cavity can collect enough honey to survive winter. No syrup needed.

    Rusty, you are not talking bee biology here. You are talking about human ignorance and greed. You are talking about bees having issues because of our greed. All of nature is having issues because of our greed and ignorance.

    We don’t breed weak dogs, cows, horses, etc … Why should we breed weak bees? All those trying to save all their colonies are weakening the bees genes. They are not trying to save anything else but their ego (I, Me, Mine).

    There is only one thing to fix and that is not Varroa or other illness but mono-crop agriculture. Once that is turned into biodiverse agriculture many if not all bee issues will disappear.

    With mono culture gone, migration beekeeping will go away, pesticides will go away, huge hive numbers per location will go away, and mono-cell foundation will naturally disappear, I feel.

    We must realise that our human life-style needs to be treated not the bees.

    Bee well

    • Very interesting insights. I have seen most of these ideas before, but not necessarily all together and so well-stated.

    • True, except we do breed weak dogs, cows, and horses. Many of these creatures can no longer live in the wild. Many manifest disease and disability at a young age. Many have genetic problems resulting from double recessive chromosomes (inbreeding). Much of the livestock is now slaughtered so early we don’t see the problem, but it is there nevertheless.

  • Rusty – thanks for making an effort to bridge the divide. We need more of this. Falling on the natural end of the spectrum, I’m frustrated by the lack of good information and research to advance natural beekeeping.

    I quite agree with you that natural does not equal “do nothing”. Unfortunately, these are often treated as synonymous. Just as conventional beekeepers resent being portrayed as unthinkingly dousing their hives with poison, so are natural beekeepers irked by being labeled as blue-eyed and uncritical.

    There’s a big lobby pushing research for conventional beekeeping. We need some of that rigor targeted at natural beekeeping.

  • There are two popular subjects in beekeeping these days. One is the inevitable demise of the honey bee and how without our intervention it is going to be extinct, and the other is the uncontrolled spread of the dreadful killer Africanized Honey bee. Am I the only one who sees contradiction in reasoning here?

    Yes I can understand a person who has a significant investment in bees and equipment [wanting] to protect it by preemptively treating for pests and diseases. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that it would bring a complete decimation of your bees if you hadn’t done that. After all, the same kind of logic is used by the agricultural sector to justify hosing our food supply with poisons. Because if they don’t, we won’t have anything to eat and we will all die.

    I think creation has an enormous potential to adapt to changes in the environment. I would postulate that if bees are left to themselves they will adapt to whatever they face or will face in the future. I guess I’m not a beekeeper, at least not according to your definition. I did, for the most part, what you described—put them in the box and mumbled about “survival of the fittest.” I did it three years ago and the bees are still doing great and going strong. You can say it is a statistically insignificant number of hives and not a solid scientific methodology to prove anything. I suppose it is not.

    I guess it all boils down to how much risk you are willing to deal with. Are you prepared to lose everything? If not, then you go down the path of fighting the entropy. If yes, then you relax and see what happens. I think there are more ways than one to skin a cat. However, if you are true to scientific methodology, before you say “doing nothing is not an option” you need to prove by multiple experiments that doing nothing is not an option (well it is always going to be an option, just an option with unsatisfactory results).

    • Art,

      To me, it does not boil down to risk or how much you are willing to lose. That attitude is all about the beekeeper, not the bees. I believe once you take any living thing into your care, you have an obligation to it, whether it be a dog, a toad, or a bee. If you don’t feel compelled to take care of whatever it is, then you shouldn’t have it.

      I believe many people see the the label “natural beekeeper” as a way to avoid putting too much into it. Ironically, other “natural beekeepers” bend over backwards to do the best they possibly can, which is why I don’t like the label.

      The point of the post is simply that we would all like to be natural beekeepers, but it is a moving target. What is natural to one is not natural to another; what works for one does not work for another. And sure, there will always be exceptions. There’s an old saying, “the exception makes the rule.” It happens. It will always happen. But we cannot depend on the exception if we want to be successful beekeepers.

      You say, “I guess I’m not a beekeeper, at least not according to your definition. I did, for the most part, what you described—put them in the box and mumbled about “survival of the fittest.” Sorry to be contrary, but I don’t exactly believe you. Why? Because no one who ascribes to that philosophy, or who really didn’t care about his bees, would bother to 1) read my post or 2) write such a detailed and well-crafted answer. Not only that, you’ve been here before; I recall your e-mail address. So whatever you say about yourself, I think you are a motivated and analytical beekeeper who actually cares quite a bit about his bees. It is no accident your bees are doing fine after three years.

      • Most of the time when we take in a living creature like a dog, cat, toad, pig, horse, cow, etc. we become the sole provider of all food, water, and forage space. With bees this is not the case, unless you’re raising bees on the moon. Bees are wild creatures, and even in our unnatural, man-made boxes they continue to live as wild creatures and are not dependent on us for their sustenance.

        Of course, migratory beekeeping is a different story. I’m speaking strictly about backyard or non-migratory beekeeping.

        I contend that comparing bees to domesticated farm animals is the same fallacy as comparing bees to children.

      • Guilty as charged 🙂 I do read your blog and I do like learning new things about bees. And I did include a qualifier “for the most part” when I said that I just dumped my bees in the box and did nothing else. However my “self deprecation” somewhat justified, because in comparison to other beekeepers and the effort with which they wage the war on entropy, I’m just a “bee haver”, not a bee keeper.

        I don’t disagree with you on “natural” bee keeping in general. Everyone decides how far they want to go with it. One thing that I happen to think differently is perhaps this – bees are not like dogs, cats, turtles and other common household pets. When we decide to get those pets we train them to a life of dependency. Bees on the other hand don’t need us and merely tolerate our intrusion and “care” (some more patiently than others). A “care” can mean different things to different people as well, just like “natural” can vary from bee keeper to bee keeper. I would suggest that cases of bees being killed by love (too much “care”) far outnumber the cases of bees dying from neglect. What does it say about our responsibility to the bees under our care? As I mentioned before, africanized bees seem to be spreading just fine despite varroa mite and no care whatsoever.

        My experience might be an exception, but then again, it might not be. I read a lot about people going treatment free with bees and still having success. Granted it is not that simple. You can not slam on the brakes with just any colony. Most colonies we have in the US have been genetically bred for weakness and left to themselves will die. Bee keepers prevented bee population from adapting to pests and diseases by artificially sustaining population of bees that cannot. But that’s a completely different discussion.

        • Art,

          You say, “Bees on the other hand don’t need us and merely tolerate our intrusion and ‘care'”. Later you say, “Most colonies we have in the US have been genetically bred for weakness and left to themselves will die.” In my mind, those contradict each other. I believe that in the U.S. bees have devolved to the level of domesticated animals and most colonies will die within a year or two if they don’t receive intervention. I also think our best hope right now is the several programs that are bringing in genetic material from areas that are within the natural range of honey bees, and thus giving our native stock a genetic boost.

  • This was a well-timed post for me, as we peeked into our lone hive this past weekend to see how the ladies are doing. This is our first year as beekeepers and we have been fairly hands-off, though we did feed our package of bees vigorously in the spring and have installed beetle jails with canola oil to trap those pesky small hive beetles. We are not very diligent about our hive checks; we pull out a few frames, give them a once over, and close it up (I confess we don’t look at each and every frame, look for our queen – I feel like a negligent parent when I admit this! However, it is done to avoid aggravating and smushing any more bees than necessary). I’ve been worrying that I ought to be doing something to better monitor and prepare for varroa mites, but I have been uncharacteristically indecisive about what to do, if anything. The hive seems incredibly robust and vigorous, they are in full sun, in a community garden space blessed with amazing diversity of plants. We’ve not seen much on our particle board under the screened bottom board that look like mites, though I’m sure they are in there somewhere. I’m learning as I go along with my bees, though I suppose we could have been better prepared prior to taking them on (took a seven week course by the local beekeeping society, am reading everything I can find, but I still feel unprepared in some aspects!). I don’t want the bees to suffer in any way but am hesitant to treat this hive with anything chemically, at least presently. I feel I’m straddling that line and not sure which way to go. It is hard to want to medicate essentially when they appear healthy – but as a health care professional, that logic doesn’t apply to humans (i.e., we do many things to prevent disease and pathology). I think the thing that makes me feel differently about this with the bees is that if I am going to be consuming something from the hive that is flooded with chemicals, that definitely makes me pause. Like I said, I’m not sure if we need to do anything differently heading into the fall. In any case, I’m learning this is a rapidly evolving field with a great variety of philosophies and opinions – many as valid as others. I think, as someone alludes above, there are many ways to be a beekeeper, and it is hard to know at this time anyways what is “right” and what is “wrong.”

  • Interesting topic. I completely agree that we are responsible for everybody who is living under our protection, be it cat, fish, dog, another human being. But my cat is 18 years old. She never took a medicine. The only “medicine” was used – Advantage for flea control. But not regularly, only when needed. Eventually, my cat somehow figured out what to do with fleas and we do not use Advantage anymore. Same with any other animals. Yes, we should provide necessary care to ensure they are healthy, but nobody is feeding antibiotics to the dog just for “prophylactic” on the regular basis.

    What is happening with bees – they are over-medicated, crowded (pollination), forced to build “unnatural comb”, forcefully feed syrup… It does not help bees at all. To me, the “natural” way of doing anything (including beekeeping) is when the principles of the Nature are utilized in everyday life. It is not like “let them bee.” It is systemic approach.

    I have very limited expertise in beekeeping (3 yr), but my “beekeeping” is quite different from what we could find on “BeeSource”. I do not treat. Why? Because, my bees are alive without treatment, the same way as I do not “treat” my cat for 18 years and she is still alive. If it is obvious that my cat (or bees) needs a medicinal help – she would have it… I am foundationless – my bees 2x smaller than “inflated” bees and they are doing great building a beautiful comb at their discretion. My bees eat honey and pollen, not syrup and yeasts. I understand, that they are vulnerable and could be destroyed by varroa or something else, but so my cat (coyote?)…

    I think, “natural beekeeping” is to provide bees with natural resources vs entirely “unnatural” chemicals. Chemicals sometime are necessary but not as a regular element. If I would know for sure that my bees will die if I did not treat them – absolutely, I would treat them! But the problem is that statistics shows that percentage of bees to die is approximately the same for treated and non-treated bees. Thus, there is a question: “to treat or not to treat?”