It’s Not All About The Honey

Internships at Zaytuna Farm under the the direction of Geoff Lawton are an excellent way to build up your knowledge of permaculture in practice. The internship is a 10-week program and included in that ten weeks are advanced permaculture skills classes such as Earthworks, How To Teach a PDC, Permaculture Aid, Urban Permaculture and the Soils course. These scheduled classes make up for half of the internship. What you may not know and what is not all that obvious to someone looking to do an internship is what happens in the other weeks?

Those weeks are not idle. Sometimes you are going out to plant a swale with a future food forest. Perhaps the cattle lane needs to be updated, moved or repaired. You may build a chicken tractor or even a goat tractor. The staff are quietly working behind the scenes to fill that time with worthwhile, meaningful, and applicable knowledge that you can put into practice.

Then there are the "extra courses" — the courses that you did not know would be part of the internship. Examples of extra courses are Danial Lawton’s Permaculture Tools class. Here Danial teaches how to choose, use and maintain hand tools that, when used correctly, can be just as effective as a whipper snipper (weed wacker for us Americans). Danial has also been known to teach food forest maintenance, taking the students through different successions of food forests and how to maintain them for maximum productivity. There have been fermentation and pickling classes, seed saving classes, a herbs class where Geoff makes you a potent power herb and mineral drink.

The current internship had an apiculture class (beekeeping) added. The class was a three day course held off site. The instructor, Peter, and his wife Lucile, are a delightful couple. Peter, who has been working with bees for over 50 years, says "be an Apriest and not a beekeeper." What he was wisely saying is that you are not just keeping bees, but rather living amongst them — observing, caring for, and loving the bees. Obviously there is a benefit to being an apiculturist, and that is the beautiful honey and wax. However it’s not so easy to get.

On day one Peter introduced us to the bees — how they breed, eat, make honey, pollinate and the like. We looked at how to choose an aviary location and what the bees do inside. Then it was wood shop time, where the students made boxes and frames. Peter was taking time to explain each component, its function and how it fit with the whole structure. You could feel the excitement buzzing as the boxes were coming together.

Day two was a bit more full on. The class started with "how do you get bees?" Peter was going into the different options and was expanding on capturing a swarm. As he was going through the techniques of how to capture a swarm, Tom Kendal, from PRI Maungaraeeda, Sunshine Coast, came running through the door saying that he has spotted a swarm. The class went from the safety of four walls to standing in front of a huge clump of thousands of bees. Collecting the swarm was fascinating and required the cutting of a branch that the swarm had gathered onto and shaking that clump of bees into a box that he had primed with a couple frames of bee brood to entice the bees to remain and take care of the babies that were there.

In addition to capturing a swarm we also harvested honey. As I mentioned above, harvesting honey is not an easy task. Each box of honey can weigh 30+ kilos and they are full of bees (that sting). The box is opened and frame by frame the comb is extracted. All the time you are careful not to kill one of those pretty little girls (the bees) because if you do she releases a pheromone that agitates the other bees, resulting in an angry swarm. With a class of 14 students, and nearly none of them having prior exposure to harvesting honey, the bees were getting agitated, resulting in the quick exit of some students due to stings. But like the troopers permies are, they were quickly back in the ranks, helping with the next box.

We then took the harvested frames, where the honey is kept, back to the shed for extraction. Peter went into the different ways of extracting the honey all the way from the low/no cost methods to commercial honey extractors and methods in between. We popped the caps off the combs and placed half of the frames into a hand spinner and the other half were simply placed upside down in a tub to drain out until the next day.

On day three we all brought our jars and filled up! Peter then showed us some of the other benefits of the bees’ other wonderful product, the wax. Beeswax is amazing. Peter showed us all kinds of uses and homemade products that can be made with beeswax. Handling the beeswax seemed to kick up our endorphins because everyone attested to feeling better and happier after handling it. There could be something there….

The last part of the final day was spent on disease prevention and identification and how to nurture and provide space and shelter for local bee populations. Peter strongly suggested joining our local beekeeping clubs, even if we are not personally interested in managing bees ourselves. He emphasized throughout the entirety of the course that it’s not all about the honey or money. The job that these amazing creatures do pollinating our food is far more valuable than any product we could ever derive. But it sure is nice to have real, beautiful, non-diluted or sugar-fed honey provided by our wonderful little friends.

Though I found I was quite uneasy around tens of thousands of bees, I still would like to have my own hives and be an apiculturist. I’m just going to have to have a really good suit.


  1. The best part of the whole class must have been capturing a swarm! Did only the person capturing the swarm have a suit on? Pretty brave of the class if that was the case.

    The frame of honey looks really good. Just a month ago I had the chance to see a big honey comb (not in a frame) being drained and the honey was awesome.

    Did the teacher comment on the widespread deaths of bees around the world?

  2. Hi, it sounds amazing, but I’m a bit confused: Is zaytuna’s bee management as according to “permapiculture”, term coined by Oscar Perone. According to him, this strategy (when and how) inspired after Fukukoa’s “do-nothing” teachings and permaculture principles; let bees be bees, imposing nothing (though interframe spacing should also be decided by bees, as it is dependant on the temperature regime) and also instructs about how and when to harvest honey, bee bread (not pollen from traps) and wax, hive form, size(though there’s a lot of debate on a forum, they say it should be smaller, it is concluded that the optimum size depends on location). However, almost all the material is in spanish. Hope this info leads to a “natural bee management” within permasites.

  3. By using foundation, even if it is wax, he is forcing bees to draw comb to what he wants. Hopefully, he is using small cell wax foundation. Far better not to use foundation at all. If you want to “toughen” the comb in the frames, string wire. The bees will build around it.

    Far less disturbing to the bees than Langstroth frames are topbars or topbar frames. Far fewer bees are in the air assuming good behaviour by the beek.

    @Daniel, Re: interframe spacing should also be decided by bees, the moment you introduce top bars is the moment that the beekeeper not the bee must determine spacing if comb is to be drawn straight enough to the beekeeper to move it without disruption.

  4. Thanks for the comments. The class was on typical Beekeeping management for honey production and massive pollination. We all agree that there are better for the bee’s management systems available. However this was an introduction class taught by a teacher with over 50 years experience. Yes, we should all properly evaluate any system we may want to implement and make a decision based upon our evaluation.

    That (bee)ing said we should not do a counter culture method for the sake of being counter culture.


  5. Beekeepers with decades of experience seem to be the ones doing all the damage. Your only job as a good beekeeper is to provide shelter for the tenants and take the rent when they have enough to give a little extra. Dig a little deeper into the so called bee collapse and you will find it is a problem only commercial beekeepers experience. Start with feral stock, the commercial breeder queens only serve to weaken the local feral population with their narrow genetics. Never treat and let the bees decide what size of comb they would like and never feed syrup.
    If you care enough to bring Salatin to speak you care enough to bring a more appropriate person for the bees instead of the local hero beekeeper who will only serve to propagate decades of unhealthy bee husbandry practices.

  6. While commercial beeks are having immense problems, large numbers of amateur beeks are as well if they are using the same approach as the big guys, ie, large cell foundation and treatments. Unfortunately, folks just starting out often go around to their local beek association and are sent down the path they know – Langstroth with large cell foundation and treatments.

    While starting with feral stock is good, it’s not necessary especially in a local seller is selecting queens for strong genetics. If the local seller’s bees are well established over many decades, they will be acclimatized which is a huge plus. Your local seller may be using large cell but you can regress the bees you get down to smaller cell by using Mann Lake wax small cell foundation for a couple of generations and then go to natural cell. The bees will then draw the cell size they need when they need it rather than continuing to draw mostly large cell.

    I absolutely agree with the misstep of having as a first introduction to beekeeping, a beek who has been 50 years on the path that is killing bees. Far better to have a natural cell, no treatment beek. By no treatment, that includes putting herbs in the box. The only thing that can be put in the box is what the bees themselves put in, ie, honey or pollen to feed them. Even then one must be careful – no pasteurized honey and no irradiated pollen.

    Readers of this story who are interested in natural beekeeping should google Michael Bush, Dee Lusby, Dennis Murrell, or Wyatt Mangum. There are others but they will get you started. And if you want to read on the subject,

  7. I like the Langstroth systems because I find it more people friendly, productive and can still be just as good for the bees with good management.

    Like all our domestic animal systems we care and manage carefully to be good for us and good the stock animals.

  8. Hey you lot. Stop the drive by trolling.

    The stress placed on beehives by commercial operators is from moving the colonies around and over harvesting the frames.

    Moving the colonies around starves the colony as the foraging bees have to relearn their new environment (pollen, water and predators) from scratch.

    Over harvesting the hive means that you are stripping the colony of its food stores (thats what honey is after all). Few operators (commercial or otherwise) tend to consider the impact this has on the colony. The time of year that you harvest honey can affect this too as to how much pollen and water will be around in the near future for the bees to restock their stores.

    I’d be pretty sure that Geoof and co. at Zaytuna farm are doing neither of these actions and that the bees are treated with the respect they deserve, just like all of the other animal systems there.

    I doubt very much whether the bees care about one frame system over another and you can’t ask them even if they did.

    As a disclaimer, I use the langstroth system here and the bees seem perfectly happy:

    Bee box with stumpy the wallaby

    PS: You are very unlikely to be stung by any bees in a hive that is swarming.

  9. Thanks for taking the time to write the article Erik, I found it interesting and informative. If any of the commenters here proposing alternative bee keeping systems have real, on the ground experience, keeping healthy and productive hives then please submit an article about it so we all can learn from your practical experience. It’s easy to profess ideals when you don’t practice in reality.

  10. Hi DeepGreenGreenie.

    You have to be careful in promoting the one “perfect” solution when there are many perfectly acceptable solutions out there. Permaculture does not – as far as I can tell – promote a one size fits all approach to agriculture and systems. The langstroth system is mass produced, long lived, readily available and easy to use. That makes it really hard to beat.

    Some of the problems people are having with bees, I mentioned above. Other problems include over use of insecticides, vast mono-cultures and introduced pests such as the varroa mite, none of which do the bees any good. The hives that the bees live in are far less of an issue than all of those. Please get the bee out of your bonnet – or write an article about your experiences!


  11. Chris,

    I seem to have done a poor job of explaining. Let me try again. Langstroth hives are fine as a box. Frames are fine as well. The problem arises with using pre-formed comb which is usually large cell. Bees do not draw only large cell comb. When left to draw comb naturally, they draw cell in whatever size they need to whenever they choose to draw it. Most of the cells will be small cells since that is the size for workers. When they need drones, the cells will be larger.

    I’ll preface my earlier comment of I absolutely agree with the misstep of having as a first introduction to beekeeping, a beek who has been 50 years on the path that is killing bees with the following:

    It’s impossible to tell from the picture and it’s not detailed in the article whether or not the wax foundation is small or large cell. It’s quite possible that if this beek is using wax that he is using small cell and embedding wire into the wax to strengthen the comb for centrifugal extraction. If this beek is using large cell wax, my comment stands because standardized large cell comb is not what bees draw naturally. Neither is standardized small cell foundation but it is preferable to large cell.

    As for writing an article, the subject of natural beekeeping has been far better covered by far more experience beeks than me. If you have not already done so, I highly recommend that you understand natural beekeeping. The names that I provided are an excellent start.

  12. Hey DeepGreenGreenie,

    Your response smells to me like an internet drive by trolling. You dismissed every issue that I raised and instead repeated your own claim almost word for word. You have fallen into the trap of trying to promote a single minor side issue as the solution to all the problems within the bee world.

    Unfortunately, your side issue does not fit the facts on the ground and you are trying to promote controversy when there are much larger issues at play. This rhetorical technique gets used a lot to confuse people these days and it bores me.

    By all means, promote the natural beekeeping methods, but please desist from discouraging others to get into the hobby through endless rants. I am always wary of people promoting “perfect” solutions when there are many perfectly acceptable solutions. The bees need all of the help that they can get.

  13. Chris,

    I couldn’t figure out why you think that there are acceptable options besides natural cell beekeeping until I did a bit of digging. I wasn’t aware that Australia doesn’t have to deal with varroa. Hopefully, you never will but you already have Asian honey bees which are a natural carrier of varroa so it may just be a matter of time. If varroa establishes itself in Australia, Aussie beeks will experience the consequences of using large cell foundation. But it would seem that varroa might be the least of your concerns compared to what Apis cerana will do to Apis mellifera. If anyone is concerned about varroa appearing in Australia, then they should understand natural cell beekeeping –

    Not everyone here lives in Australia so don’t be so damned quick to dismiss an approach to beekeeping that results in no chemicals needing to be used in the hive. I don’t know if Aussie beekeepers need to use chemicals in their hives but here in North America conventional beekeepers do. While evidence is building that neonicotinoids are a large contributor to honeybee problems in North America, there’s also evidence that beekeepers themselves are contributing to the problem by using chemicals in the hive. Studies ( here have shown that the two dominant chemicals found in hives are the miticides fluvalinate and coumaphos. Studies have also found that fluvalinate has negative effects on honey bee learning, memory, responsiveness to sucrose, and survival. Other studies have shown that queens showed exhibit physical abnormalities and atypical behavior at sublethal levels of coumaphos.

    There is serious anecdotal evidence that suggests that the brood cycle is shorter for smaller bees than it is for larger bees. A shorter capping time tips the reproduction of the mites to where the population no longer increases. Basically, the reproductive cycles of varroa and bees are no longer in sync when bees are smaller. If the bees are able to control varroa, then fluvalinate and coumaphos are not needed. Foundation in North America (I don’t know about Australia) is designed to produce large bees. Naturally drawn cell would appear to deal with varroa. I say appear because as far as I can tell no research dollars are being spent looking in that direction because the problem is being looked at from a commercial perspective and commercial beekeeping uses foundation.

    I’ve ignored your crap about trolling up to this point but I’m going to address it now. I don’t know what your problem is but if it’s my so called dismissing of every issue that you raised, I haven’t. Yes, I haven’t acknowledged them so I will now: Yes, I completely agree with what you say about some of the problems that bees face today.

  14. Hi DeepGreenGreenie,

    No worries and fair enough. I’m glad you put your comments into context as the course was being held in Australia, so your assertions about the beekeeper were a bit off the mark.

    You may not be aware, but the threat of varroa mite is being treated very seriously here. There are hives at airports and ports which are regularly checked just in case bees make it here via those trade routes. Also, when any suspicious hives are found (including Asian honey bees) many, many people are sent out into the field in a wide area to trap any colonies of these critters.

    Still, as I said, varroa isn’t the only problem in town (ie. worldwode) in relation to bees. African hive beetle is in my area and whilst a healthy hive can fight them off, a hive that is put under stress and is constantly being poked around in has difficulties and may succumb.

    Given that the context of this article is Australia, the langstroth frames / systems are not an issue here and I am interested that you raised your concerns given the problems that are occurring in your country. Perhaps an article outlining your own experiences would be a good idea, even if they were a failure? We all learn as much if not more from failure than we do from success.

    What also needs to be addressed is incorporating a hive into an agricultural system and not just placing it in one. This is where permaculture really has a lot to offer for all animal systems in that it takes a holistic approach to the bees and provides them with access to a diverse foraging system rather than just treating them as industrial input. There is a massive difference in the two approaches.

  15. If you are asking, can you buy small cell foundation, yes. In North America, you can buy small cell wax foundation – I don’t know what’s available in Australia.

    I have no first hand experience with combs getting smaller but there is this info that suggests that it does happen – Michael Bush has said ” I have had large cell brood combs that were 30 years old. They were noticeably smaller but only starting to approach the size of a 4.9mm cell after 30 years…”

    One of the reasons that I don’t use foundation is the fact that pesticides build up in old wax. Rather than using a centrifuge for extraction, I crush and strain and put the empty frame back in the hive so that new foundation is drawn each time. The wax you get is almost white because it is so clean.

    But the primary reason that I don’t use foundation is that I’m interested in more closely mimicking Nature, ie, let the bees draw cells in whatever sizes they want. In Fukuoka terms, I can’t understand what they do and why they do it. Accepting this, I get out of the way and let them do it. I was keeping bees this way before I became familiar with permaculture but it seems to be exactly in sync with observing the patterns of nature and copying them.

    1. Greenman, Regarding the small cell myth. Mate , small cell is not available here because we surely don’t need it. I farmed bees on 3 continents mate and I measured my cellsizes and this is what I found. (not what I read on the web . I ordred 4.9 plastic foundation from America. landed at my house at a cost of $15 per frame. Now I have 3 hives complely on this 4.9 and after 3 months on the new small cell comb. As they expand with the new spring flow just started, I have allowed them to build their own combs. I stand here with the result, just measured it and guess what. It is 5.4mm . Yes , the new 4.9 bees have just build their own comb at 5.4mm. So please stop the mythe. Stop reading bulshit and feed it to others . Or come and have a look for yourself or no, please don’t come. Your BS had taken a lot of dollars out of my pocket, but now I know the truth and that truth is not part of you.

  16. (apologies, I am largely ignorant and not a beekeper myself) but I read a point of view that I thought had some relevance: we’re losing genetic diversity. Most queens are bred from a very small gene pool worldwide. The ‘tough’ bees, that might have more resilience to the chemical and other stresses imposed by mankinds’ mismangement, go wild and form unfriendly swarms and are then killed. Whats being done to get queens from this diverse, hardy gene stock, to introduce into the gene pool? I think it’s great Zaytuna is doing their bit, in their own practice as well as education, I also think that permaculturists should take one step further and be a bit more proactive in the bigger picture, such as this issue. Any opinions? : )

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