In Sonoma County we are lucky to be provided with so much fresh and sustainably-sourced produce, meat, fish, and wine. Walking through the local farmers market on sunny weekends, I always feel a certain measure of delight at the bounty of this region. That bounty is due to some hard-working individuals, and I don’t just mean humans; honey bees and native pollinators are an integral part of the diversity, beauty, and nourishment that benefits us.
My love affair with honey bees began when a feral swarm moved into the outer wall of my bedroom. I spent the following year observing these wild ladies while planning out exactly the type of beekeeper I wanted to become. The gift of watching a wild hive thrive sent me down a path of searching; not just how to become a beekeeper, but how I can best serve the bees? I discovered a world of difference between conventional beekeeping and the nuanced practices of natural beekeeping—an umbrella term used for a multitude of bee-centric, chemical-free beekeeping methods.
With the mild climate, Sonoma County is a particular attractive haven for bees, and as a result, their stewards. The prevalent local interest in organic and biodynamic farming goes hand-in-hand with bee-centric bee husbandry. Similar to the commercial dairy and meat industry, there is a growing awareness around conventional beekeeping practices that do more harm than good. Bees suffer not only from pesticides, invasive species and habitat loss, but also from antiquated beekeeping practices. However, in recent years a movement toward natural beekeeping has gained momentum.
Natural beekeeping asks the question: how do bees thrive in the wild? How do they function as a superorganism? How can we support their health as both a colony and a species without the use of harsh chemicals, plastics, sugar diets, and overmanipulation?
Honey Bees, or Apis mellifera, are native European bees brought to the Americas by settlers. They are highly intelligent social organisms who reproduce at an individual level when the queen lays eggs, as well as creating new colonies when the bees swarm every spring. They prefer to live in dry hollows such as trees, and build the comb structure they live on from wax secreted from their own abdomens. Within that hexagon architecture they raise babies (called a “brood”), store pollen as food for the brood, store water for air conditioning and hydration, and store honey as food for adults.
The hive is made up of predominately female—or sister bees—who maintain a myriad of jobs including nurses, builders, guards, foragers, undertakers, and attendants to the queen. Their brothers—or drones—make up a smaller percentage of the population and help to maintain the genetic diversity of the species through mating with regional queens from other hives.
As a natural beekeeper, I take into consideration each hive as a single being (colony) made up of many individual parts (bees). I have spent years teaching myself to slow down and listen to what the bees are telling me; to open up all my senses and learn, not just from books, but from observation and even, at times, intuition. Each hive has its own personality. Learning to read the “face” of that hive takes time and patience. To be a steward to the bees, one has to learn to slow their mind, their movements, their breathing, and their sense of time. Beekeeping is a mindfulness practice. We learn to pivot from our human-centric agenda and ask what the bees need. We learn to see beyond the hive and learn to read the landscape, the weather patterns, the seasonal shifts. Beekeeping ties us to the animal rhythms of the land and our own bodies, even if we are keeping bees on the rooftops of San Francisco or Paris.
With spring fast approaching, this is go time for most beekeepers. We wonder: when will the first swarm emerge? Swarming is the most natural way for bees to form new colonies, and it is the time when honey bees are at their most docile. It’s also the best source for getting new bees! Seeing a swarm is considered good luck in many cultures; it’s an invitation to abundance, fertility, health, and well-being. As you step into spring, keep your eyes open for such an occurrence, it’s a magical thing to witness. If you’re interested in becoming a natural beekeeper, this is the time to get things moving.
Here are some suggestions to get you started:
- Choose a Hive Style
Langstroth hives are the conventional standardized hive. Instead, consider a more bee-centric hive such as the horizontal top bar hive or a Warré hive.
- Decide to Go Foundation-less
Choose a hive style that allows bees to build their own comb without plastic foundation. Top bar beekeeping is great for this, or you can convert a Langstroth plastic foundation hive into a plastic-free hive.
- Get Your Tools Together
Tools you will need depend on hive style, but the shortlist is: gloves, veil, smoker/water spray bottle, hive working tool, feeder, and a heart full of wonder.
- Source Your Bees
Chose to either try a swarm catch or purchase your bees as a package. Be ready! Most packages sell out and will arrive in late April. As a rule, swarms are a more humane way to start a hive.
- Choose a Hive Location
Think dappled sun, lots of flowers, Southeast facing, non-windy.
- Plant Flowers
Plant more flowers. Then plant more flowers.
- Set up a Water Source
Yep, bees need water too! A local stream, pond, or manmade fountain work great.
- Prep Your Hive
This means painting or weatherproofing the wood with organic materials like clay paint, tung oil, or an eco-stain.
- Prepare the Feed
Avoid using sugar syrup and instead consider making the biodynamic bee tea recipe from Spikenard Farms (found here) to help your new bees build up their strength
- Prepare Yourself
Ask yourself: why do you want to keep bees? Be open to being a beginner. Ask for help. Read books. Join the local beekeeper association. Be prepared to fall in love. Surrender to the fact that you’ll probably become one of those nerdy bee people who can no longer have a normal dinner conversation without bringing up bees.
Happy beekeeping everyone! Next time you see a bee on a flower, give her a hello. She’s giving 100% of herself so that her hive can survive and her species proliferate. With her help, we receive nourishment and beauty. She may live in a hive nearby. She may be cared for by a beekeeper, but the truth is, no hive is ever really domesticated. She will always be wild.