Following is an article I wrote for the Natural Bee Husbandry magazine. The original text is provided below the photos.
There is a growing awareness, by bee-centered beekeepers around the world, that honey bee colonies are not meant to live as a solitary organism in a sterile environment. In fact, in the wild, they share their hive cavity with thousands of other organisms; from yeasts, molds, and fungi, to many other insects including several varieties of mites.
One core difference between conventional beekeeping and bee-centered beekeeping can be illustrated by the juxtaposition of these two questions:
"How do we control Varroa mites in our apiaries?” versus "What do the honey bees that we are stewarding need from us in order to reach symbiosis with Varroa mites?"
This second question has led many bee-centered beekeepers to begin exploring the use of eco-floors as a hive base for the colonies that they are stewarding. An eco-floor is a cavity several inches deep, directly under the brood nest, that is filled with detritus from the ground, and/or rotting trees, that a beekeeper collects in their own locality. The idea is that the detritus, with all of its indigenous biological organisms, will provide a much more natural and healthy environment as the bees live in symbiotic relationship with these organisms just like they do in the wild. We have probably not even begun to understand or imagine the potential health benefits for the bees.
So let’s take a quick look at four aspects of using eco-floors.
Bee-centered beekeepers are still largely designing and building their eco-floors themselves. My eco-floors, on my Preservation Hives, are several inches deep and hold multiple gallons of detritus. I do not screen the top of the eco-floor cavity; I want the bees to have direct access to the detritus. As far as we know, there may be organisms living there that the bees want to allow right up into the brood nest. (And, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the bees have a vast knowledge of the resources available to them in that eco-floor micro-ecology.) Here are a couple of photos of an eco-floor, taken in my shop, showing how it is designed:
However, I do screen the bottom of the eco-floor with eighth-inch hardware cloth. As the bees live in the hive over time, they will drop all kinds of things into the detritus: wax cappings, honey drippings, nectar, pollen, discarded larvae, bee parts, propolis, pieces of burr comb, etc. As these things integrate into the detritus, additional organisms - the organisms we want in the hive - will be attracted to the eco-floor environment. I screen the bottom of the eco-floor to give these organisms ready access to that environment.
The screened bottom serves an additional purpose as well, it allows a very slow movement of air up through the detritus and into the hive; air that is slowly warmed by the biological processes occurring in the detritus.
Of course, an eco-floor is also a fantastic hygroscopic insulator for the bottom of the hive.
Detritus Collection Sources:
The ideal, of course, would be to find a tree in which a colony is currently living, and has been for some time. A tree where the cavity can easily be reached, with an opening through which one can easily fit their arm, and with a shallow depth below the opening that allows one to reach down to the bottom of the cavity and easily scoop out the detritus. But, I don’t expect to find this in my lifetime! So, realistically, what’s the next best thing?
I like to look for fallen, rotting trees in my region. I then look to see if they have a rotting cavity with soft, punky wood, and other material that I can scoop out. Here’s a photo of just such a tree:
Another source would be the base of a fallen tree, like this:
If neither of these are available, look underneath the trunk, in a place where it makes contact with the ground and the bark is rotting and falling off:
Detritus Collection Timing:
The ideal, in my opinion, is to collect the detritus, and add it to the eco-floor, just before installing/moving bees into that particular hive. Of course, there will be exceptions to this, but the idea is to collect the detritus at a time when it is teeming with indigenous organisms.
Detritus Collection Tools/Techniques:
I use a 5-gallon bucket, a hatchet, and a pry bar. The pry bar and hatchet allow me to break apart some of the tougher parts of the tree to get to the soft, punky, decaying material. Here’s a photo showing that I have cleaned out that hollow cavity and put the material into a bucket:
I do fill the eco-floor level with the top for two reasons. One, I know that it will settle as time goes on. And, two, once a honey bee colony is living in that hive, I want to leave the eco-floor environment undisturbed so that, over time, it can develop into the ecology that is the most natural for the bottom of a honey bee hive cavity in my region.
Finally, in my interactions with other beekeepers, I’ve found that the subject of eco-floors is one of those topics that quickly reveals the lens through which we view beekeeping. Imagine a conventional beekeeper and a bee-centric beekeeper, standing on the property of a mutual friend, observing a honey bee colony flying in and out of their hive in a hollow tree. The property owner assures them, “Yes, bees have been living in this tree for many years.” The conventional beekeeper might say to himself, “Wow, at least part of the picture may be that the bees have thrived in this location in spite of the other organisms they have shared the cavity with.” The bee-centric beekeeper might say to himself, “Wow, at least part of the picture may be that the bees have thrived in this location because of the other organisms they have shared the cavity with.”