Integrating Beekeeping with Permaculture

Insects and wildlife are an important part of a permaculture design. Without them your design will not be complete, the forces will not be in balance like the Jedi without Darth Wader.

Bees particularly have outputs we all can enjoy, even some vegans are bending the rules for honey and I am sure cavemen were enjoying the honey during palaeontologic times, you know what I mean bullet proof coffee lovers. Oh did I mention that most bees also have a light sabre.

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A bee colony consists of a queen or two, female workers and male drones. This is a very narrow view of a complete system though. It is nowhere near a complete definition of a colony. There are also 8000 type of yeast, mould, fungi, and bacteria as well as 170 other insects and parasites that lives with the greater bee colony. Some of the relationships in the hive are symbiotic too, most of them opportunistic though. Who doesn’t like honey? :-D

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My topbar hive is also home to an ant colony. I didn’t see the queen yet but they certainly know the heated part of the hive and move their eggs there in winter. Luckily, they are between the bars and the roof and not inside the hive. I saw some small hive beetles and some cockroaches too. The bees deal with all these given that their immune system and defences are strong.

A bee colony is a complete system which sustains the holistic hive with its temperature and humidity control, disease and spoilage control, reproduction, social nature of the works in the hive like tending the youngs, feeding the queen, male drones and larvae, cleaning and defending the hive, producing the wax, maintaining the comb system, meticulous recording of pollen and nectar flow times of flowers and trees, stacking the food where they need most, communicating the foraging resources etc. etc.

When this system fiddled by mankind, things go wrong. First Father Langstroth invented the movable frames which changed the thermodynamics of the combs. Then the foundation comb mankind given to bees dictated the comb cell size. Mankind told them to take up rectangular boxes as nests without enough thickness on the walls; they couldn’t survive harsh winters or hot summers. We now have HDPE plastic combs with taps for them that mankind not aware the implications for bees yet down the line in 100 years. The comb is the data storage for bees. Same type of pollens stored in same cells given that the combs are not changed and the bees figure out the flowering times based on what resources they have depleted.

Mankind is effectively ruining the bees big time and made them rely on chemicals, foundation comb, artificial food, HFCS syrup and single type pollen for food that comes with monoculture, transportation from places to places for pollination services and if this is not enough, the neo-nicotinoid based chemicals used in agriculture causing colony collapse disorder (CCD) where entire colony disappears into thin air leaving the brood and honey resources behind which they usually protect with their lives.

Agricultural chemicals and even the weed killer glyphosate used in the cities by the councils and municipalities comes into the hive with pollen and nectar. These start building up in the comb’s wax. After a while it becomes unbearable for the bees to stay in that death box and they either die or leave and die.

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We basically let them lost their sustainability.

If we follow the 3 principles of permaculture, Earth care, people care and fair share;

1- We need to care for the bees as they were existing even before the apes walking upright. They are one of the oldest creatures of this planet.

2- We need to care for people who cares for the bees doing right things for the benefit of the bees. Bees are the ones actually caring for people though. If you try to buy honey from a natural beekeeper, you are supporting the bees. If you buy from supermarket, god knows where the money goes.

3- We should be grateful that bees are sharing their bounty with us. If we build designs in our living areas integrating the bees and provide them places they can live in peace that would be best. This could either be a little box for native bees, some sort of insect hotel or a nicely insulated hive where we can be partners in life.

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Any hive type; be it Langstroth, Topbar, Warre, Perone, Flow or other variations can be used towards a more holistic and natural approach given that you let the bees to be bees naturally. What matters is your relationship with the bees not the equipment you use.

Starting with the brood chamber; that would be the first box on vertical hives and first 10 bars on horizontal hives. This part should be declared as the sacred part of the hive and should not be handled by the beekeeper under any circumstances. This is the uterus of the hive where they grow babies, stack their winter resources and gather together to go through the winter, warming the brood and the queen.

I have a Langstroth and a horizontal topbar hive. Langstroth has 2 boxes dedicated to bees without frames. I’ve put some cross sticks in it and the bees built their nest based on their specifications. I never open these two boxes. My topbar hive also has a brood chamber consists of about 15 bars. I never touch to these parts. This setup allows a better wintering for the bees as they move between the combs easily because the combs are built in a somewhat circular shape.

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Second is the food resources for winter. Bees eat honey and pollen not sugary water or soy protein. We have to make sure that there is enough honey left for their wintering in the hive. After the harvest, I remove the top box which is a Flow, put the roof back on with good insulation and give back about 2 litres of honey to bees. Reduce the entrance so that mice cannot get in and leave them till the beginning of spring. Whatever honey remained that we didn’t consume goes back to bees in the beginning of spring because this is the time bees start foraging but there is not enough around and also cold snaps happen here and there causes colony deaths.

Third is the humidity and temperature of the hive should be protected at all costs. A natural beekeeper should only open the hive once or twice a year to add an extra super on top or to harvest. For that reason, I like the horizontal topbar hives as they allow me to harvest excess honey without releasing the humidity and temperature which the bees worked hard for it.

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I never harvest pollen, propolis, royal jelly or wax from the hive. Harvested pollen is not really digestible by human. Propolis has got good properties but harvesting requires extra equipment. Royal jelly is another industry on its own right. You won’t be producing honey if you are producing royal jelly and it requires special queen cups and lots of labour to extract. All these products requires interference with the colony’s inner workings which is not good for the bees.

I removed some pollen in its comb for medicinal purposes, it works with the hay fever at certain times as it is half digested by bacteria there. I have also used a small piece of discarded larvae in its comb to make a yogurt starter.

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Don’t forget that we also need to support the foraging resources around and do more guerrilla gardening. Especially target plants that are flowering in different times. If we can distribute the resources to 6 months during spring and summer, bees will have more opportunity to be alive and well.

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  1. Hi, Love the hive in the picture do you have any sharable plans so we can build one similar, please? We already have one we constructed but the roof has always been an issue! Thank you for a super article! With love x

  2. Can you prevent africanized bees or aggressive bees coming in. We went to emergency room w/ 170 bee sting between the two of us. not sure my husband wants to try again. We live in hot Arizona on 3 acres. Havent found any bee support groups

    1. I live in Arizona as well and I’m interested in beekeeping and communicating through social media with other people interested in beekeeping in Arizona. I have not started yet but plan to attract bees to my 6 acre property either this summer or the next.

  3. Great article. Im also a bee guardian using TopBar hives. My eyes raise though at never opening the brood chamber – in countries where varroa mite exist that practice would mean certain death for the bees. It also law in New Zealand that all frames are removable for inspection especially for American Foul Brood – another nasty bee killing disease thats also infectious & transmittable to other hives. As using anitbiotics in NZ bee hives is forbidden, those with AFB are sealed & burnt. Bees are an integral part of my design system & an enjoyable hobby but they also come with legal & management requirements to keep them well & healthy. My advice to budding new beekeepers is to check the laws of your own area. Great Article.

  4. Great article thank you. I’m trying my first top bar beehive, for the bees, not so much about honey for me. So I’m on a giant learning curve.
    How do you remove your honey since you mention you don’t harvest any beeswax? I always thought the wax honey comb was taken from the hive in order to harvest the honey.
    Thank you for your help.

    1. Hi Rhonda, yes, naturally when I am removing excess honey, the comb comes with it. I usually add the empty comb to my cheese wax to use it. I do not particularly harvest wax though.

      1. After reading your write up on bees i would love to know where you gained your next level, multi dimensional education from, highly inspiring and i am real keen to get my langys’ sorted to appropriate conditions for the little loves. Any chance of a pointer ? many thanks.

        Justin Amor

        1. Hi Justin, The things I can remember at the top of my head are:

          Biobees forum
          David Heaf’s book
          Wyatt Mangum’s book
          Michael Bush’s web site and book
          Emille Warre’s book
          Oscar Perone’s permapiculture (though he deleted his web sites but things are available here and there.)
          H. Storch – At the Hive Entrance book
          My own experience
          Roger Delon’s stable climate hive pdf

          I am also watching some european and south american beekeepers to see the local differences in implementation.

  5. Good article. I love bees and used to work without a veil. For the Americas, the Ministero de Agricola, Mexico, has a simple test to see if bees are africanized. Dress in heavy bee-suit, take a one-meter stick (or a little longer), attach a red or black piece of cloth to the end and give the hive a few wacks. Please do not attempt to reenact Lizzy Borden. any bees will swarm the cloth. If you get more than 4-5 stings on the cloth, burn the hive. They do this in Mexico, which is trying to curb killer bees. while the majority of bees are African, they’re much less aggressive. Honey is a major, in some areas the major, agriculture product. BTW, Mexico doesn’t pay for destroyed hives, but apiarists want the test done. Better that than dead children.

  6. Firstly; a colony that has 2 Queens will either swarm, therefore, only have one in the hive, or the Queen’s will fight until one dies.
    Secondly; the small hive beetles, completely destroys, honey, eggs, larva, bees & wax, even wood, leaving nothing. The bees can not deal with them.
    I do agree with the “Hive Flow” hive to be ignorance of mankind which WILL cause problems in the future. So stay away from them.
    Organic/poly culture or wild foraging is the only way I would/do beekeeping.
    I absolutely disagree with the brood chamber not being handled by the beekeeper. How would you know if the hive had foul-brood – which would spread like wildfire to all your hives and also native bees. Thereby killing all the bees and leaving a bacterial disease for bees to catch; even up to 100 years later, the spores can stay dormant and then reactivate.
    Also how would you know if the hive would want to swarm or your Queen is failing, or other problems like mites???
    Top bar hives or not using wooden frames with wax foundation in any hive makes it almost impossible to remove frames to check for the above. Is this the “real” reason you do not check your hives properly or at all?
    Curious to know how many years you have been bee keeping? I believe you are spreading a lot of misinformation, which could get a lot of new bee keepers in trouble. Permaculture, I believe to be extremely important and timely, as will as bee keeping. They go hand in hand.

    1. Hi Kim,
      Depending on the hive size, you can have even 3 queens. There are some log hives I have seen back in Turkey with 2 queens roaming in it without swarming. They do have separated areas though. You have to see it to believe it. These are really large hives not like Langstroth boxes.
      SHB is not much of a problem in my hives. Yes I do have them. A chux cloth folded and left in the entrance slows them down so the bees catch and infuse them in the cloth. This is the only natural method I use if I remember to do in the beginning of spring. If SHB is a problem in your hives, you have to ask yourself why the bees cannot control them, what am I doing to prevent bees control their nest?
      If a hive is failing, They fail. There is no need to keep that strain of bees. Let them fail.
      You are only right about the Foul Brood (though you should’ve said “American” Foul Brood) control in a naturally managed hive but you can smell an AFB infested hive from 10 meters with its distinct flavour. You have to be trained for that of course. Then your only option is to burn them. European Foul Brood doesn’t cause these problems and can be managed by the bees or with a bit of ventilation.
      I am not spreading “a lot of misinformation”, I am telling what a natural hive should be like as it was the case till Father Langstroth came up with the idea of movable frames.
      I have 8 years of experience and wrote a book for hobby beekeepers. I am not commercial. The nanny-state rules and commercial beekeeping is taking its toll on bee population. IMHO commercial beekeeping practices and books are spreading humongous amount of misinformation.

      1. “The nanny-state rules and commercial beekeeping is taking its toll on bee population. IMHO commercial beekeeping practices and books are spreading humongous amount of misinformation.” Thank you for your intelligent and thought provoking article. We hope and pray that many people take up the responsibility to help restore our earth’s bee population – your way.

    2. Forgot to add: If a hive wants to swarm, I will not do anything to stop this behavior. This is their natural instinct. I will do everything to catch them though.

      If Queen is failing, colony should manage that and make new queens. Or let them die. If a strain of bees can not be alive by themselves, they should be removed from the gene pool. Only then we can have strong bees that can manage themselves.

  7. You mention in the comments that you have published a beekeeping book. Where can I find your book. I’m planning a small permaculture farm and would like to naturally include bees.

  8. Nice article, wonderful information and pictures. Thank you fro sharing it.
    I am a Beekeeper myself and also in the process of submitting my PhD research thesis. The research is based on Apis dorsata, which are common in my part (i live in Ahmednagar, State: Maharashtra, India).
    I would like to know if Permaculture offers any Courses related to Beekeeping. I have been organising Workshops/ Conferences related to Beekeeping for Farmers, UG/PG Students and enthusiasts partnered by Central Beekeeping Research & Training Institute (Govt. Of India). Kindly provide some details.
    Thank you.

    1. Shikhin, I am hoping your thesis is towards the conservation of apis dorsata. That insect should stay as wild and should not be boxed.

      Permaculture design certificate courses may mention beekeeping but there is no specific training other than Warre beekeeping which is towards the apis mellifera. May be you yourself can develop a training for apis dorsata specifically.

  9. Interesting comments. I’ve been a beekeeper for 20 years and have noticed great changes in beekeeping in that time. We used to be told to open up the whole hive to check it every ten days; now people realise how damaging that is and we try to be as “light touch” as possible. I always have a broodbox plus super below the queen excluder so that the queen can lay in an egg-shaped pattern which is more natural.
    There is also much research being done on more natural ways of controlling varroa. but we are worried that Brexit will bring changes in agricultural laws – there is such a strong lobby for the introduction of neonicotinoids.
    You mention two queens in a hive. This often happens when the bees supersede – I have had an elderly, non-laying queen last for a good year in the hive beside her fertile, busy daughter.
    Best wishes.
    We in England are very concerned that Brexit will produce changes in

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