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.
*This article includes some links to the website of Mellifera e.V. We are excited about the society and want to support the network of species appropriate beekeeping. We were not paid for this article or received other remuneration.