Did you know that honey bees are responsible for about 80% of pollination worldwide?
Bees pollinate fruit, nuts, and vegetables - which include 70 of the top 100 crops that provide us with food. Naturally, a bee colony loses 5-10% of its bees in the winter, and then replaces those losses in the spring. In the U.S, winter losses are now as high as 30% to 50% or more due to Colony Collapse Disorder - when the majority of worker bees abandon the hive and their queen.
Hawaii, however, has seen a much lower percentage in the loss of bees. This climate supports lush tropical plant life - including numerous fruit trees and macadamia nuts - that provide an abundant food source. It also helps to have incredible beekeepers like Jen Rasmussen who are committed to making a difference. Jen began learning about bees here on the Big Island eight years ago and, soon after she began her journey, encountered major problems with pests that paved the way for her intuitive beekeeping method. She brought this method to Kalani in August, starting us with two of her top bar hives.
Defining Intuitive Beekeeping
This natural method relies on the bees themselves to care for their hives - without treatments or chemicals. When Jen experienced an infestation of varroa mites and small hive beetles that devastated her earliest hives, she discovered that the best method of dealing with these pests was to take direction from the bees. They understood how to best protect themselves through hygienic behavior - meaning the bees located pests and other diseases and treated them appropriately themselves.
In essence, intuitive beekeeping is simply observing the bees’ natural behavior and working in harmony with them. It’s about creating a relationship between the beekeeper and bees that fosters a safe environment where bees flourish.
The Bee Basics
In a bee colony or hive, there are three types of bees: drones, workers, and the queen. The drone bees are the males, whose role is to fly up about 400 feet in the air and wait to mate with a queen. The female worker bees provide many functions for the hive, which are carried out in a cycle during their 35 - 45 day lifespan. These tasks are dependent on the age of the worker bee, and they know instinctively when to move from one duty to another. The queen bee is notably larger than the other female bees and lays twice her bodyweight in eggs each day. She produces a pheromone that communicates the condition of the hive to the rest of the bees.
Usually during the spring, bees reproduce their colonies, and essentially clean house, through a cycle called a swarm. When swarming occurs, the old queen flies off and takes about 75% of the other bees with her to look for a new hive. At this time, a queen cup - a specialized cell designated for a new queen - will be utilized in order to create a new queen for the original hive.
Bees are nature’s architects. As bees build their hives, they make a string with their bodies that measures the size of the cells. In fact, this action actually determines the sex of the bees that will be produced. The top bar hive works with the bees’ natural inclinations as builders, allowing them to build with gravity.
Importance of Treatment-Free Beekeeping
Another problem Jen came across was a commonly used pesticide called imidacloprid. The bees brought it from the plants to their hive, where it made them confused, then paralyzed, and eventually killed them. However, once she knew what to look for in the bees’ behavior and could instruct other beekeepers on what to look for in their hives, she found that these chemicals could be banned from communities with bees because of their adverse effects.
Although the dangers these pesticides present to pollinating bees are noted, some beekeeping strategies treat pests and disease within the hive similarly. Bees are treated with antibiotics, miticides, and stimulants to combat these issues. The problem with such treatments is that they create more disease-resistant pests, rather than stronger bees. As Jen explains of her experience, “my strategy has changed from battling the pests to empowering the bees.” Her treatment-free hives are a way of working with nature to help the bees adapt to their best ability and fight pests off themselves.
Since our bee hives were established, we have harvested over 20 gallons of honey to share with the community. Honey is created from nectar that bees stir with their proboscis (tongue) and then dry by fanning their wings. Typically, it is used to nourish the bees during the winter when they can’t often leave the hive to forage for nectar. Hawaii is unique because there aren’t many days when the bees are cooped up in their hives and therefore, honey must be harvested regularly.
We are grateful to not only share honey, but also to host workshops about Jen’s intuitive beekeeping methods regularly. For more information on bee workshops and others in our Permaculture Series, like our Permaculture Facebook page. The bees are a model of how to create a sustainable community where all contribute to the abundance.