My bee journey began in February 2019. I was actually searching for a permaculture course, but those were too far away from where I lived and slightly more expensive than I could permit myself at the time. I came across various beekeeping courses close by and decided to sign up, not knowing that these Apis Mellifera would highjack me.
By the second class in the course, I realised that the way beekeeping is done and taught goes against all that I believe in. From controlling the bees to produce the most honey, to artificially splitting cells, breaking queen cells, killing queens, and using chemical pesticides.
Coincidentally, the beekeeper teaching the practical course was the same man who was taking care of the bees in the meadow of our neighbours. Rien is his name, a retired carpenter and a generous man. While Rien practices beekeeping in the not-so-bee-centric way, he proved to be open and excited to witness and even help in my process of freeing my bees. However, when I first met him last year, he presented me with the first dilemma.
‘How many bee hives do you want to begin with’ he had asked. I said that one was enough, but he suggested two, in case one of the hives does not make it, but more importantly, having two hives gives the beekeeper the chance to compare the behaviour of the hives to each other – which I would later learn is quite important.
‘But’ he added, ‘if you begin with two, then you will end up with four by the end of the year.’
I panicked. I was just starting off and did not even know if I would be ready for so many.
As every beekeeper knows, every year – if left to their own devices – half the bees in a hive leave with the queen, after having laid eggs for a new queen in the old hive. The bees with the old (fertilised) queen ‘swarm’ in search of a new home, while the others stay in the old hive and wait for the birth of the new queen. Thus, from every one volk – as the dutch call it – or peoples – two is the end result.
Here are the houses of ‘Sol’ and ‘Belle.’ My first two hives, with Sol being the parent hive… nestled between Rien’s six hives… Waiting to swarm and start a new generation of free bees….
Last year, I just did things the way Rien did them. While I did not want to have a second volk, my only other option would have been to kill the old queen. I could not do that, so I ended up with a second hive, but they were not allowed to naturally swarm, and Rien showed me how to make a ‘veger’ – as they call it here – where the old queen is placed with several combs of bees in another hive, allowing a new queen to emerge in the old hive.
In 2020, having read the book ‘The Song of Increase,’ by Jacqueline Freeman, I felt inspired and ready to practice natural beekeeping. This meant allowing my bees to swarm and observing them closely to be able to catch the swarm and house it in a new hive.
In the week leading to the swarm, I learnt more about bees than I had during my whole course last year. I fell in love with the bees… and now – writing this – after having had two swarms which I successfully collected in May… I cannot imagine doing it any other way. Yes, it means closely observing, it means being aware and ready to climb up and down ladders to scoop the bees from five meters high in a tree whose roots are in a swamp…
It is just so much fun.
I chose a Warré hive to house my new free bees. This hive was developed by a French monk around the end of WWII. The hives have windows in the back for observation, so as to disturb the bees as little as possible by the countless ‘controls’ that the beekeeper does…
Another benefit of this system – or other systems that do not rely on pre-installed combs, is that because we allow the bees to build their own comb, and this takes about a couple of weeks, whatever parasites that sit on their bodies and which otherwise would feed off the larvae and the eggs… those parasites die naturally, because they have to wait till the bees build the comb before the queen begins laying eggs. So this means two things: We have less work to do (and less cost) in terms of buying and preparing pre-fab combs, and we don’t have to use chemicals to kills the varroa mite, because it falls dead on its own and the bees begin their colony with clean and parasite-free combs.
The first swarm took place on the 4th of May (from Sol) and settled in the house of ‘Sage’ to the right… with some drama that followed [which you can hear about on my podcast: ] The second swarm took place on the 14th of May (from Belle.) It was harder to collect but it is strong and growing … thus its name, the house of Vlier.
I harvested honey from Sol and Belle in the middle of spring, and Sol provided another small harvest a couple of weeks ago. I do not take all the honey as some do… half for me and half for them.
It’s been dry and hot this spring, but the rains have finally started to fall and there are new plants blossoming… it might just turn out to be a good summer for the bees.
As for the houses of Sage and Vlier… those will remain untouched until next year.
I have fallen in love with those amazing creatures. Observing them every day, meditating on their sound … sometimes they seem to be composing symphonies….