This year, our garden got enriched with many more plants, thus also more insects. Thanks to the uncountable blooming herbs, perennials and flowers, there is humming and buzzing in every corner. What a spectacle! Beside many species of wild bees, bumblebees and butterflies, also honeybees feast on the flowers’ nectar. This is no accident, we became beekeepers! Two bee-colonies are living in our garden this year. We dreamt about this for some time now, because bees just belong to a natural garden. We did not have the pollination or the honey in mind as much as our fascination for these creatures.

We could not get down to work completely clueless, of course. We were especially interested in alternative ways of beekeeping, and stumbled across the species-appropriate beekeeping and Mellifera e. V.. Since the middle of the 80s, the society advocates for a beekeeping which focuses on the natural needs of a bee colony. Sustainable, ecological, and species-appropriate.

The goal: “A world in tune with bee, humans and nature.” Mellifera does a lot of research work at the society owned teaching and experimental honey farm “Fischersmühle”, offers nationwide knowledge transfer, exchange via the regional Mellifera groups and also founded different initiatives like the „Netzwerk Blühende Landschaft“, „Bienen machen Schule“ or the „Bündnis zum Schutz der Bienen“. Mellifera campaigns for the bees and against a bee hostile environment.

We were really excited, so without further ado we took the course “with bees through the year” at the Berlin Princess Garden. At five dates we learned about the species-appropriate beekeeping. Of course, there was not only instructive theory, but also a lot of practical work with the colonies. After the first meeting we knew already we wanted to start with own bees the very same year, to have the possibility to ask for help if any questions occurred. But what exactly does species-appropriate mean?

Species-appropriate beekeeping is guided by the natural need of a bee colony.

Using the species-appropriate beekeeping, the bee is not seen as an individual, but all bees at the colony are viewed as one organic being. One of the important aspects, is reproduction via the natural bee swarm. This is based on a bee queen, created by the own colony, and the autonomous building of honeycombs. This way, a healthy colony life can evolve. A colony organism. Another difference of species-appropriate beekeeping in contrast to conventional beekeeping is reproduction. In conventional beekeeping the queen is fertilized artificially. The semen is taken from only one or two drones. During the natural mating flight, however, the queen collects semen from ten to twenty drones, which provides a way higher diversity and possibility of adaption of the bee. In conventional beekeeping, the bees are adjusted to the needs of the bee keeper, which means the main focus is on an as high as possible honey production. For that, specifically bred gene material is brought into the swarm, natural swarm activities are suppressed, plus you work with prefabricated wax foundation in the frames. You might think this is easier for the bees if a part of its honeycombs is already prepared.

Honeybees have been building their honeycombs since about 100 million years. They not only store the honey in them and raise new bees, but the honeycombs also work as a resonating body which carries on vibes. It is the most important communication tool for the bees, which dance on the combs to let other worker bees know, where they find nectar and pollen. A prefabricated, thick foundation complicates the whole process, of course. The colony manages to withstand this intervention. Without its enormous adaptation ability this species would not have been able to adapt to all the changes in environmental and life conditions during the last millions of years. However, humans have contributed to the bees not being able to survive on their own with their interventions, allegedly breeding optimizations and environmental destruction. What millions of years of evolution accomplished is destroyed by man within a few decades. But enough of the doom-mongering! Actually, we want to write about the beautiful and fascinating experiences we made during the past months.

Let’s start with the birth of a new bee colony and how we got to our bees. In swarming season, which is between May and June, strong bee colonies use the abundance of nectar and pollen to separate. You can recognize it already at the so called queen cells. These are cells in which new queen bees are brought up. The old queen moves out of the hive with a part of the colony before the young queens emerge.

They form a swarm which for example gathers in a cluster beneath a branch. Watching this spectacle of nature is a unique experience. During our beekeeping course, we were able to watch that spectacle even twice. Watch the bees tumbling out of the flight hole like kids out of school at the beginning of summer break. You can literally see the excitement for something new.

In the air above our heads a black cloud of small dancing bees was buzzing, finding themselves to one organism.

Even though thousands of bees rose to the sky, the queasy feeling soon was replaced by pure excitement. In this moment, the bees had neither eyes nor ears for us tiny humans. Loaded with honey for three days, prepared for looking for a new home, there was no thought wasted on attacking. What did they have to defend, anyway? Leaving the hive behind, they had everything they had – the honey – with them.

As impressive as the spectacle itself was the catching of the swarms. One was a few meters high in a tree at Prinzessinnen Gärten. With a high ladder and a rod quite a few meters long, which had a sack to catch the swarm at the end, our course tutor Heinz Risse caught the bee swarm and put it into a swarm box, so it could move into a beehives. We were also just waiting for such an opportunity. Our one-box hives by Mellifera were waiting fully prepared, painted in red and yellow, for the bees to move in. We chose this hive system because it is seemed to be the best for the start. The frame size is ideal for the natural building of honeycombs, and allows a big cohesive nidus. There, the offspring will be raised. The honey stocks will be stored at the far end from the flight hole as bees do it naturally.

Other hives are structured like this hive, as well, but in contrast to the one-box hive, they don’t give too much insight into the bee colony and its processes. We dearly wanted to observe, study and understand. For that, only the inhabitants were missing. We waited impatiently for someone to catch a swarm in our area. At Mellifera’s swarm share you can sign up as someone looking for a swarm to be noticed about swarms to be passed on. At the beginning of May the time had come: our first swarm moved into the red hive. We basically let them come into port. You read correctly. Instead of throwing them into their new home without them having a clue, we rolled out the red carpet. Well, it was white, but you get the idea. And again, we could just watch in awe, mouths agape. The first bees inspected the hive rather fast and happily started dancing to call their sisters. A few followed into the hive and finally, a whole stream of bees entered through the flight hole. If you experienced a swarm this way, you cannot think otherwise of the colony as one unit, a super organism. This mass of bees, no millimeter between them, mouths interacting with each other, small legs clinging to each other.

A bee is like a cell in a human body, the combs like the bones. The wholeness of everything is the living being.

After moving in, the decorating started straight away. After only a few days, the wooden frames were already filled partly in milky white, perfectly formed combs. The building material, small wax scales, the bees sweat from glands on their abdomen. Incredible! Such thing made by nature man cannot outmatch.

Due to lucky coincidence, we were part of catching our second bee swarm. Over the Mellifera network we got to know Helmut Lutsch who engages in beekeeping following the same principles. It was important to us to connect with someone in our region you can exchange knowledge and experiences. Since Helmut, too, does not hinder his bees from swarming, a part of one of his colonies was found at eye level at a staghorn sumac. The cluster of bees was beautiful to watch. We are incredibly thankful for him calling us to be there when he catches the swarm and handing it to us in the end.

Together, we let the bees move in, just like the first swarm. In the weeks after, our new yard inhabitants gave us a lot to think about. Especially about animal farming and man’s impact on nature.

Curiosity is just an inherent characteristic of humans. As much as we wanted the bees to be bees, as much did we want to know if everything is alright. So we glimpsed once a week into the hives. We checked if the young queen bees (both were afterswarms) already copulated, if the bee larvas can be seen in the honeycombs, how much pollen and nectar the bees already had collected.

We wanted to see how the honeycomb building proceeds, if they need more frames, and so on. Every day we were sitting on the bench next to the red hive and watched the busy drive from the outside. We saw bees with full pollen pellets rushing through the flight hole. Beside worker bees (female) we also saw drones (male), which look way more plump, but one bee we could not find: the queen bee. She must have been there since there was new breed, which meant, the wedding flight was successful and the offspring grown in the honeycombs. After four weeks, we finally saw her and the joy was overwhelming.

We quickly learned that every bee colony is as different as every human. The first colony we got, with only a few weeks ahead in the year, suddenly exploded. They built day and night, stocked pollen in every colour of the rainbow in the combs, processed nectar to golden honey, and they became more and more. The second colony still takes its time, builds leisurely, grows slowly. The bees gave us even more trust in nature. We do not understand everything they do or don’t do. There is no manual. Bees are individuals, not machines. We don’t want to direct them, don’t want to show them how to do things right. Because basically they are the only ones to know what they need. How should we humans understand? We are humans, not bees. We are the ones who can learn from them, not the other way round.

If you embark on the fascination of bees, it’s hard to let go.

At least we feel this way. It is incredible how at the peak of a colony development 40.000 individual organisms build on entity. It is almost unbelievable, what every single honey bee achieves for the group, how much one bee devotes itself! In summer, a worker bee’s life does not last longer than six weeks. After the cleaning, nursing and security duty, the worker bees start learning to fly in front of the flight hole after almost half their lifespan. Only then they emerge into the outer world to the flowers. The second half of its short life the bee is flying around and still it adds a lot to the colony. She flies out several times a day, visiting about 1000 flowers on a route of 15 kilometers in total in an area covering 50 square kilometer. For a honey glass of 500 grams bees fly a total of 120.000 kilometers. That are three circumnavigations! If you put so much work into something, you should have the right to feed on it as well. We think, the collectors have the right to their own honey. It is the food storage which provides for the hive during winter. Beside glucose and fructose, honey includes different vitamins, amino acids and minerals. 

In contrast to species-appropriate beekeeping, conventional beekeeping just exchanges the fluid gold with mere sugar water, which of course does not contain all the minerals and vitamins. Withal, bees even collect way more honey than they need. They could easily keep the stock they need for the winter and the beekeeper still would  have enough bread with honey on it. Up to 15 kilograms surplus you can gain from one colony alone, without taking the dire needed nutrition for the cold months away. 

Since our bee colonies are both afterswarms, they needed time but especially energy, and thus a huge part of the collected nectar for building new honey combs. Therefore, we won’t take any honey away before winter, but will wait until spring. We’ll be patient until the bees go on a huge flight again. Only then we can be sure not to be taking away the good so important for their survival. For the rest of the summer, we will be watching the hustle and bustle at the flight hole and hope that our bees collect enough supplies to get well through winter. 

f you are infected with the bee fever now, too, and also want to start with beekeeping, we can warmly recommend the bee course by Mellifera. But even without own bees you can help creating a bee-friendly environment for wild and honeybees. Everyone can help providing nutrition. You can plant mixed flowers in your garden or on your balcony. Also, around the lawn you can plant such a meadow for bees. Hedges and fruit plants bring additional blossoms into the garden. Insects love that and we get, thanks to pollinations from the bees, delicious fruits. Who neither has a balcony nor a garden can support the Netzwerk Blühende Landschaften (Network Blooming Landscapes) with a sponsorship.

 

But also knowledge about and an awareness for these animals can help. At the end of August, a very special conference is held in Berlin with super interesting, international bee experts. Also, you can book a Zeidlerei workshop where you can learn how to build log hives. We are looking forward to this event so much. Maybe we meet one or another of you guys there. All information about the conference you find on the website of Learning from the Bees Berlin.

When we look at our garden, we feel a little bit like our grandparents who tousle their grandchild’s hair and say: you’ve grown so much! There is pride, an enormous fascination for nature, her small and big changes, and also bliss.

Before we give insight in what we’ve been doing the last weeks here, we want to show you a most notably enrichment to our vegetable garden.

As you already know, we planted a few hundred edible perennials on over 40m² around our green house in spring. We hoped to improve our garden visually and culinarily, but also to provide a playground for all kinds of insects. However, to look a lush blooming beauty after only a few weeks we never dared to dream. The perennials look like garden veterans already. And when we watch the busy activities of wild and honey bees, bumble bees and other insects, it was one of the best decisions we made for the relocation of our vegetable garden. We did not even had to research or plan, we only discovered the already composed perennial sets by durchgeblueht.de. It is a cooperation by Michael Simonsen and Olaf Schnelle. We decided on „Gruß aus der Lausitz“, „Kräutermischung Halbschatten“, „Mediterrane Kräuter“, „Essbare Blüten blau-weiss-rot“ and „Pizza“. The biggest patch was reserved for the beautiful „Teemischung Blütenelixier“.

We always harvested the herbs fresh for our daily need. Especially the tea herbs grew rampant and needed a first pruning back. We used this opportunity to dry huge share of anise-hyssop, lady’s mantle, java apple, various mints and melissa, sage, lavender, and thyme.

On a warm, sunny midmorning we harvested the herbs in whole sprouts. Before noon, the herbs have the most essential oils. Since we wanted to conserve these with easy air drying, we did not wash the herbs. Shortly shaking them out is enough. By doing this, the drying process is kept short and the flavour is the strongest. 

Depending on the herbs, we loosely bound ten sprouts maximum to two dozen bouquets with yarn and hung them on our attic heads down. What a scent! The optimal temperature for drying is about 35°C. When it’s over 45°, some of the essential oils already get lost. Who wants to dry the herbs in a dehydrator or in the oven should not exceed this temperature. When the herbs rustle and brittle easily between the fingers, they are ready. Depending on the temperature, this can take days or weeks. Pluck the leaves as a whole, if possible, from the stems, fill them in dry, airtight glasses and store them light protected. This way you can conserve the summer feeling all year round. 

It’s the end of May already and finally, everything in our garden comes together. Since our last report a lot happened. The patches are all encircled and ready for planting. While preparing we encountered a few surprises which cost us hours, ah, days of work. Not to mention our nerves. But we want to spare you from the horrific details and us from the memories. It is way nicer to talk about the most plants being planted and growing great. Diverse herbs, fennel, radishes and spinach were already harvested galore. Peas are twining up the climbing support, and bit by bit the late vegetable kinds are planted. This year, we have over 150 different varieties. 12 different kinds tomatoes alone, and 8 varieties of potatoes. We especially stressed on rare heirloom vegetables. Ideally, the seeds are regional. This way, the plants are adapted perfectly for the climate in Mecklenburg. 

Beside the many kinds of vegetables, we also planted a lot of edible perennials on over 40m² around our green house. The count 360 plants, including varieties like adder’s wort, daylilly, echinacea, lavender, anis hyssop, mallow, bluebell, lady’s mantle, sweet cicely, common violet, horned pansy, just to name a few. The perennials are well-matched so we have edible flowers, petals and seeds all year round. With their different leaves and heights the plants not only add to a beautiful scenery, they also go well with their neighbours. They will be a great addition to our cuisine, but also have an effect on our garden. The perennials won’t be planned and planted new every year, unlike our vegetable patches, but are planned for years, thus showing their splendour every year again. The shifted and thus long blooming time will not only bring us joy, but also to the many wild bees we see here again and again. In Germany, there are over 500 different types of wild bees. Crazy, right? However, as you might know, a lot of them are endangered or even at the brink of extinction already. This is mainly due to the specific plants the bees specialised on to feed. Most bees are also specialised on their nesting place and need special building material and other details, which disappear more and more. 

Instead of biodiversity the bees only find monocultures. We can see the beauty in the rich yellow rape fields. However, this is barely nature, actually, they even add to the environmental destruction. Don’t even get us started on gen technology, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. In our little cosmos, we want to do things differently. We want to see ourselves what it means to enrich nature with our possibilities instead of just exploiting it. Sometimes, that’s not easy. Especially, since we need to gather experience and knowledge to act and live sustainable. 

Maybe you remember our first thoughts, over a year ago, concerning our kitchen garden. We had the idea, inspired by books on permaculture, to give every plant the perfect spot on our 3.000m² and create little habitats in which flora and fauna could grow in accordance with and enrich each other. However, already last year we decided on a more classic cottage garden. Clear geometrical structures not only help us with the cultivation but also with the care for and harvest of our vegetables. Of course, we did not tally the idea of permaculture completely. We actually see it more as a philosophy rather than a concrete way of gardening. We want to follow the core idea of this philosophy: with nature, not against it. In a close-to-nature cottage garden a lot of permacultural aspects are important, anyway. Natural cycles can also have structured forms. For us, a deliberate crop rotation and intercropping are part of it as well as a thick layer of mulch made of grass on the patches, the preparing of natural resources as muck, broths, and teas. This just as a quick note, since we wrote about that somewhen else already. 

Working with nature also means to provide space for useful creatures. Before we finally find the time to rest in a hammock in our garden, we probably build another house for wild bees, pile stones and wood for hedgehogs, insects, small reptiles and amphibians. Maybe it’s just a drop in the bucket. We can’t stop the drastic changes of our world. But maybe we can inspire one or another to act like us and to discover the fascination for nature’s routines.

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