This post, perhaps more than any other I have written, may highlight the difference between the worldview and mindset of a bee-centric beekeeper, and that of a conventional beekeeper.
I am a bee-centered beekeeper with the goal, over time, of developing an ecotype – a genetically distinct geographic variety, population or race within a species [still Apis Mellifera], which is adapted to specific environmental conditions. I want to see colonies in my region living for years in one location, and casting at least one swarm each season that is equipped to thrive in the wild.
To that end, I install colonies in my Bee Tree Hives. BT Hives are designed to allow honey bees to live much more like they’re designed to live - like they do live in the wild - by giving them the control they need to better regulate the micro-climate of the hive, as well as the micro-ecology they’re superintending. Beyond that, because of my end goal, I am, with very few exceptions, a zero-intervention beekeeper.
All of the colonies I monitor live in Bee Tree Hives and are widely separated in my high mountain valley, sometimes by as much as several miles. There is one exception to this, I have an apiary on my property that has a few hives within close proximity to each other. I call this apiary my "classroom." This is where the bees teach me. I can watch them throughout the day... sitting with them, watching them, studying them, photographing them, thinking through what their behavior is revealing to me, and listening for what they're trying to tell me about the earth and their place in it.
[Let me interject here that, with practice, it is possible to learn to recognize many aspects of a colony's condition by taking the time to watch them coming and going at their hive. It is not always necessary to open a hive, destroying so much of their hard work in the process, in order to tell how a colony is faring. This is an art I hope to write about someday.]
Recently, I noticed what looks like robbing behavior at one of the hives. Conventional beekeeping would dictate immediate intervention to protect the stores of the colony that is being robbed. But I am choosing not to do that. Here's why:
- I highly suspect that this colony is queenless. The number of foragers dropped off fairly dramatically toward the end of the season compared to other colonies. I believe that this is due to poor genetics; the queen failed as an egg-layer, and the colony failed to supersede her.
- Assuming for the moment that they are not queenless, even if I were to intervene at this point, their chances of surviving the winter would still be very low. They don't have the critical mass, both literally and figuratively, to survive a winter here in the Rocky Mountains. The odds are great that the colony would still perish over the winter even if I could help protect the honey that is stored in their hive. (In a Bee Tree Hive, there is little I could do anyway. BT Hives have a small upper entrance in each hive body. There is no large bottom entrance to close down.)
- On the other hand, the other colonies in this apiary are doing very well. My video titled "Hygienic Colony Behavior" is of one of these colonies. In fact, based on the coloration of the robbers, I believe that it may be this very colony that is doing the robbing. These are the genetics I want to propagate.
So, because of my end goal as a bee-centered beekeeper, I am letting this natural selection process take place. I'm choosing to increase the survival odds of a strong colony by allowing them to rob-out the stores of a colony that has very little chance of surviving anyway.
A final thought. Some may say, "Why don't you open the hive to see if they're queenless, that way you'd know?" Two reasons:
- Knowing this would not change my choice.
- On the very slim chance that the colony is not queenless, I do not want to disturb them [break their propolis seals and burr comb] this late in the season. If, by some chance, they survive the robbing, and subsequently survive the winter, then those are genetics that I would want to propagate. But if I have to intervene in order for them to survive (artificial selection), then I'd rather let a stronger colony increase its odds of survival (natural selection).
Postscript: I am the first to admit that "keeping bees," and learning to care for the earth in partnership with them, is a journey. My list of questions is still growing faster than my list of answers... and all of those answers are tentative.