Natural Beekeeping for the Home Gardener

October 28, 2011

Gardeners recognize the plight of honeybees and the important role that they play in pollinating the crops that find their way unto our dining tables. The desire to lend a helping hand to the honeybee has led to the increasing popularity of backyard beekeeping as a hobby that fits in nicely with home gardening.

James Zitting of Bee Landing spoke at the Mother Earth News Fair and met with me afterwards to share his tips to make sustainable beekeeping a feasible option for the backyard gardener. The following ideas highlight his philosophy and recommendations on caring for honeybees.

A Sustainable Philosophy to Managing Honeybees

Some of his ideas and practices sound similar to things that you hear when discussing sustainable farming and agricultural concepts; focus on local bees, eliminate the use of chemical pesticides and drugs, and work in concert with nature rather than attempt to control it.

James views beekeeping not as a source of income, but rather as a source of enjoyment. I can attest to the pleasure of keeping bees in the backyard, and the joys to be gained from simply watching them come and go, or in discovering the fascinating inner workings of the hive.

James Zitting’s Seven Keys to Natural Beekeeping:

  1. Employ beekeeping strategies such as top bar hives or foundationless frames that allow the bee’s decide the dimensions of cells they will construct and possibly deter mites in the process.
  2. Reduce exposure to pesticides and fungicides which can build up in beeswax, contaminate pollen, have a negative impact on queen bees, and ferment to become even more toxic inside the hive.
  3. Construct hive bodies with thicker walls that more closely simulate a natural tree cavity. Use thick hive materials to make life easier for your bees by providing better insulation and reducing the amount of condensation that forms inside.
  4. Avoid medicating honeybees, miticides are toxic chemicals and can be harmful to bees as well as the mites. Instead look for resistant and hygienic breeds of bees that are able to manage pests on their own.
  5. Buy local bees rather than ship packages in from distant suppliers. Local bees offer many advantages, in particular you are more likely to obtain bees that are adapted to your climate and will have an easier time surviving.
  6. Employ a natural selection breeding program that promotes healthy bees rather than maintaining colonies that can’t survive without constant treatments. Propagate the strongest hives and don’t continue to prop up weak or diseased colonies.
  7. Zitting is a stickler for feeding bees only with their natural food; honey, and avoids feeding sugar or high fructose corn syrup. If you must feed sugar he recommends that you discontinue as soon as there is a nectar flow available.

Getting Started with a New Colony of Honeybees

To get started with a new hive James prefers catching a feral swarm of bees over purchasing a package from commercial suppliers. Concerns with commercial packages can include high prices, inconsistent quality, and a supply that has had trouble keeping up with the demand in recent years.

While luring or trapping a swarm of bees is free, you are at the mercy of Mother Nature to actually deliver the goods and there is no guarantee that you will secure a wild swarm. You can increase your odds by adding your name to swarm lists in your area or by notifying police and fire departments that you are available to catch swarms in your community.

Start with two hives if possible to take advantage of what Zitting referred to as “the Robin Hood thing” of sharing resources from a stronger hive to help build up another hive that is off to a slow start, has lost their queen, or needs an infusion of capped brood to quickly boost the workforce during a nectar flow.

More Tips for Success in the Backyard Apiary

Use end entrances and face you hives to the south. An ideal location offers midday shade during the heat of summer but full sun during the winter months. Never paint the interior of a beehive. If pesticide contamination is suspected to be an issue, rotate out older combs and wax to reduce the amount of toxic accumulation within the hive.

Mutts, or mixed honeybee breeds turn out to be Zitting’s best colonies. He stressed the importance that drone bees serve in passing on their genetics and in improving the diversity of local bee populations. James also emphasized the role that backyard and hobby beekeepers will play in improving the conditions for honeybees; as commercial beekeepers are not likely to change their standard practices.

Buy or build your own beehive to discover what an amazing hobby and how much fun you can have with beekeeping. All the while you will be helping out the local stock of bees and enjoying a lifelong hobby of learning. Bee Landing offers top bar hives for sale or you can download free top bar hive plans on the Internet and build your own.

The final word of advice offered was to not become discouraged if your first hive does not survive. Instead of viewing it as a failure, use the resources of comb that the first colony produced and apply the lessons that you learned to provide a better foundation for success with the next colony of honeybees that you care for!

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  • Luke

    Great article!! My friend Jason, struggled with his first hive or two, but stuck with it and he finally has a healthy colony. He actually harvested his first honey this year and I can attest – it is amazing! Backyard beekeeping is absolutely on my to-do list when I own my own place.


  • I have always known the bees play an important part in maintaining a garden biodiversity and I totally agree with that but I never thought of really having one in my garden. But I like the idea and I will try this one out.

  • With the declining Bee population in the United Kingdom this is such a good article to read. I’m not sure how many people realize just how important bees are to our food crops. Nice to see this article addresses the issue and provides more awareness to the problems.

  • Great tips, thank you. Bees are so important – though I confess that so far my main efforts at promoting bees have been to invest in small bee houses for solitary bees rather than full hives, and to plant flowers etc that are especially attractive to them.

  • Wonderful tips! I have been thinking about starting beekeeping but was a bit nervous. I definitely feel better now, thanks!

  • Keeping bees is something I’ve been toying with for years, but I have to admit I’ve been too chicken to try it so far. I did find a local shop with hives and equipment though, so maybe soon?

  • Hi,
    A good article which has given me some food (no pun intended) for thought.
    I would like to have more bees in the garden, especially as I am redesigning my garden at the moment to be less ornamental expanse of lawn to more of a “mini” biodiverse eden project for plants and wildlife.
    However, how dangerous are bees ? I have 2 kids, a dog and 2 cats…. I would be worried that these things would swarm around and attack us (okay, I mean the kids).

  • Great tips there. Thanks for sharing.

  • Never seen top bar hives before…very interesting concept!

    Raising bees without chemicals can be quite a challenge, I bet. When I used to raise bees, we used mite strips all the time, and we still lost hives to it. It’s great to see people doing it sustainably.

  • Kenny Point

    Thanks for all the comments related to backyard beekeeping. If you are on the fence about the idea find a local beekeeper or bee club in your area that will allow you to spend time around some beehives and get a better feel for whether it is something that you would enjoy doing.

    Celine, the bees will be most protective right around the hive and some breeds are more aggressive than others. Italian bees are known for their gentleness while Africanized honeybees are among the most aggressive and territorial. I can stand within ten feet of my hives (a mixed breed of bees) and they don’t pay me much attention. My dog doesn’t go near the hives but he will snap at bees that fly within his range and he has gotten stung once or twice in the past. How much space do you have in your yard and would you be able to find a spot to place the hive that would be out of the traffic pattern of your kids, pets, and the neighbors?

  • I am a beekeeping newbie myself and I wish to go organic. I really enjoyed this post, thank you.

  • I’m interested in learning more about beekeeping so very glad I stumbled upon this article. Thanks you

  • Great Tips!, I will try to do something in my garden! 😉

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