​There's more than one way to keep bees – a look at alternative beekeeping practices

People have been keeping bees for thousands of years, and producing honey commercially for decades. Beekeeping practices have evolved over the years, and they're still changing.

In New Zealand and elsewhere, there are a number of commercial and hobby beekeepers who use alternative and 'natural' practices and products to maintain their hives. While some people associate these practices with small, hobbyist beekeepers, there are also commercial keepers who use them – it's really a matter of choice.

Whether you're a commercial honey producer, a hobbyist, or just starting out on your beekeeping journey, it's valuable to know about alternatives to conventional wisdom. The more you know about the pros and cons of each approach, the easier it is to make choices that work for you and your bees.

Reducing the impact of inspections

Conventional beekeeping involves regular hive inspections. These checks allow the beekeeper to assess colony health and find any problems before they impact on the hive.

Natural beekeepers try to avoid opening their hives entirely. They argue that the bee colony should be seen more as a living ‘superorganism’ and that disturbing a hive impacts on its temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide levels and hormone balances, and causes suboptimal conditions for health and honey production. They also dislike causing harm to individual bees – opening hives and removing frames usually results in some bees being accidentally crushed.

Of course, eliminating inspections altogether could mean missing the signs of disease, infestation, or slow colony growth. Keeping inspections to a minimum and using gentle techniques – like brushing to remove bees – can help you avoid disruption to the hive without losing the valuable information inspections provide.

Alternative bee medicine

Treating diseases and hive infestations is an essential part of beekeeping. In New Zealand, the Varroa mite is a constant threat to bees, American Foulbrood Disease can cause huge problems, and wasps can decimate colonies.

Alternative beekeepers don’t usually ignore these issues, but they may choose to treat them using organic methods. Varroa, for example, can be treated by using Thymovar wafers or MAQS strips, rather than synthetic treatments. Many beekeepers believe that using these alternatives can help prevent the mites building up resistance to the synthetic chemicals in other treatments.

To prevent wasps invading hives, natural beekeepers – and many beekeepers in general – focus on using wasp traps or natural wasp repellents like citronella, eucalyptus and mint.

Whether you think of yourself as an ‘alternative’ beekeeper or not, many of these treatment practices are worth a try, so you may want to consider using a ‘natural’ alternative first – the conventional treatment can come later, if need be.

The best of both worlds

Beekeeping, like almost any profession, has its traditionalists and its fringe elements. Most beekeepers will fall somewhere in the middle.

Some alternative practices can be more complicated and time consuming, which makes them less appealing to commercial keepers. But some conventional practices can be damaging to your colony, which isn’t ideal for anyone. You don’t have to identify as a ‘natural’ or alternative beekeeper before you can try natural or alternative methods, you can simply give them a go. On the other hand, if you start out with an alternative approach and find that it’s not working for you, there’s nothing wrong with turning to conventional wisdom.

It’s about striking a balance between what’s best for you, your bees, and your business.

If you need help finding products or want to learn more about alternative beekeeping, get in touch with the Ecrotek team now.