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Holistic Beekeeping

Michael Thiele is our Holistic Beekeeping Advisor (more info at Michael's web page at www.gaiabees.com).. Listed below are some of the core principles of hive management he teaches in his holistic and biodynamic beekeeping workshops. Read more about Michael on the About Us page.

New (old) hive designs

Once we approach bee keeping in the context of the “Bien”, which represents the undividable entity of the hive, our methods and hives will change accordingly. There are currently three alternative hive designs (and more to come) used at “The Melissa Garden”:

One-Room-Hive (Golden Hive)
One of the “bee-natural” hives we work with at the Melissa Garden is the “one-room-hive” (in German: “Einraumbeute”), which is also called the “golden hive”. It is designed to provide the best environment for the development of the “Bien” and to minimize necessary manipulation (more frequent opening of hives may result in a weakening of the “Bien”).

Four different elements are part of the new design:

  • The entire colony lives in one room (without multiple hives and frame levels)
  • The hive comes with tall frames. That size comb sustains the “Bien” and allows the development of a large brood nest.
  • The side window enables the bee keeper to receive information about the cycle/status of the “Bien” without having to open the hive. A small size “indicator comb” can be build along side the viewing window.
  • The dimensions of the one-room-hive are set according to the “golden mean”. It is a universal principle within all forming forces in nature and is found in art, architecture and ancient philosophy. It’s also called the “divine proportion”.

It was designed by Mellifera e.V., the German holistic bee keeper association. The “Golden Hive” provides an environment for bees that is closer to their natural gestalt. It gives the bees the space to build natural comb with greater depth than regular bee hives. The brood nest is a protected space, and honey can be received from the sides. This hive contains 20 frames and is not supered. The comb surface area equals the frames of two regular deep and one medium Langstroth hive bodies. It has the typical screened bottom board for varroa monitoring, and uses follower boards to support changing bee populations throughout the season. A wax cloth lays on top of the frames and provides further options for protection the inner climate of the “Bien”.

“Weissenseifener Haengekorb” (Round Skep Hive)
The “Weissenseifener Haengekorb” was designed by the German sculptor Guenther Mancke. The form and shape of the hive are created according to natural/wild bee hives. The “Bien” as “an organic interpretation of an individual” (Tautz) was the blueprint for the design. Already through his outer shape it reveals the nature of the bees colonie– as if the egg shaped skep would be the outer shell or skin of this living being. The inner shape allows bees to unfold their own natural gestalt, in harmony with their instinctual life forces. The “Haengekorb” is made out of rye straw and has nine, half moon shaped arched, movable frames. Comb is built naturally and can be almost 2 feet deep. Supering is possible while fully protecting the integrity of the brood nest. The entrance is located at the bottom of the hive.

Top Bar Hive
It provides all the features of a natural comb bee hive. Top bars fully cover the upper opening of the hive, with initial comb guidance on the lower bar side. Top bar hives are used in many different cultures. We are introducing new versions of the top bar hive this coming year, which will use “bee-natural” hive proportions and will provide more space for larger comb creation. Top bar hives can be built easily with some basic materials.

Langstroth hives with natural comb
All of the Langstroth hives at “The Melissa Garden” allow bees to live on natural comb. Deep hive bodies are added from below (no supering). Bees over-winter on their own food and only true surplus honey is harvested.

Principles of Holistic Beekeeping by Michael Thiele

Interconnectedness
There is no single bee – as there is no single human being. It’s a product of a limited world view. The single bee is only one individual part of the bigger entity of the entire bee hive. The “Bien” is what Tautz calls an “organic interpretation of an individual”. This can serve as a beautiful metaphor or mirror for our own existence: That we are just one individual part of a bigger entity: The earth’s ecosystem and the entire universe.

Shift Paradigms
Bees are an indicator species, reflecting the health and status of our life environment as well as the interdependency and interconnectedness of all life on earth. Traditional beekeeping and farming understood and acknowledged the natural life forces of the bees. Modern beekeeping and farming practices have lost this ancient knowledge and this loss has taken its toll on the bees on multiple levels. We have to shift paradigms in order to save the bees.

“Bien”
The concept of the “Bien” describes the undividable entity of the hive. The whole is one organism and the hive is more than the sum of the individual parts. Thousands of bees are integrated into a higher-order entity, one whose abilities far transcend those of the individual bee. “The consciousness of the beehive (not of the individual bees) is of a very high nature” (Rudolf Steiner). Their communication and networking capacities, non hierarchical decision processes and an understanding of service to the greater web of life, which the individual being (bee) is part of, are pointing to a higher level of development and awareness. And such, the bees are a vital part of human culture and an inspiration to the soul. Being in touch with the “Bien” also means to reach out to the flowering world. As bee-keepers we are becoming “flower-keepers” and stewards of the earth as well.


Comb
The comb co-evolved with the bees as a part of the bee itself. Wax comb is the biggest inner organ of the “Bien”. Bees spend 90% of their life on the comb. They create the wax out of their own body – no other insect is able to do this. The comb is home, womb, pantry, (external) skeleton, sense organ, nerve system, memory organ and immune system. The “comb-wide-web” provides a means of communication on multiple levels: dance, vibration, chemical marking. The dance floor is marked with some bee pheromones and other still unknown substances. The comb is a controlled environment. As the interior milieu, it becomes part of the “Bien”. Therefore, it is essential to allow bees to build their own natural comb and to give them the freedom to express their instinctual life forces. Natural comb is essential when we want to support the bees in a time of ecological challenges. It is their birthright.

It is easy to let bees build natural comb. Since bees build according to gravity, hives need to be leveled and frames need to provide some initial guidance, such as beads of wax across the bottom of the top bar, or one-inch strips of bees wax foundation placed for the bees to start building from. Tapered frames may be used as well, since bees draw naturally comb from thin edges. If you have questions in regards to natural comb management, please contact us for assistance.

Nest density – the landscape becomes the apiarium
Following the movement of the “Bien”, swarms aim to settle further away from their mother colony. The natural distribution of nest sites vary according to climate and local flora. It is a natural instinct of the “Bien” to leave home and journey into the landscape. It not only reflects a consideration for forage, but it also serves the health of the bees by favoring vertical over horizontal transmission of so called pathogens. The former leads to a lower virulence of diseases where the latter leads to an unbalance of relationships, in particular within the symbiotic life between the “Bien” and it's microorganisms and parasites like varroa. Therefore the landscape shall become the apiarium again. Hives are set up individually and spaced at least 400 yards from each other. Various hives are set up on tables and in trees within the boundaries of the Melissa Garden. Empty hives will be “seeded” by swarms only, whether feral or from Melissa Garden hives. We hope to help restore the natural web of life this way on various levels.

Parallels between “Bien” and mammals
There are interesting parallels between bees and mammals. Both have low reproduction rates in common. Mammals raise their offspring with mother’s milk and nursing bees use “sister’s milk,” which is produced in special glands. Wherein mammals provide a uterus, the brood nest of the bees has similar characteristics as a “social” uterus. Body temperatures are 98 degrees F for humans and 95 degrees F for bees, which is very close.

Retention of nest scent and heat
The hive is not an external dwelling of the “Bien”. When we open a bee hive, we are entering an ecological system, or even a being’s body. Heat, humidity, light, draft, the entire self awareness, the immune system and the sense of integrity of the “Bien” are challenged and affected! Johann Thür called the internal conditions “the element of life, the retention of nest scent and heat”, which are part of the immune system and important for it’s well being (studies have shown that more frequent opening of hives caused higher damage due the hive beetle).

Approach
When opening a hive, how do we approach the “Bien”? It seems we are conditioned to reach for beekeeping tools like a veil, gloves and smoke. Our “armor” may make it challenging to stay open for the mood of the bees and it may be more difficult to extend our empathy. With the protection in place, we more likely penetrate realms of highest vulnerability, without even noticing. We may get out of touch with what is right in front of us. To re-evaluate our precautions and body protections (which are important), we may open up to a new approach of respectful encountering the “Bien”. We can learn to listen and how to move and “dance” with the bees. This does not mean not to protect ourselves. The issue is rather not to become “blind” through our “beekeeping tools”. Smoke is another stress factor in beekeeping, and with all our senses open, the smoker can stay cold for most of the time. Experiment with it and go with you comfort level. Then a different path of beekeeping opens up.


Information on alternative hives:
Please go to gaiabees.com


Books & web links:
“The Buzz about Bees”, by Prof. Dr. Juergen Tautz
“Bees”, by Rudolf Steiner
“Wisdom of the bees”, by Erik Berrevoets
“The Buzz about Bees”, by Prof. Dr. Juergen Tautz
“Toward saving the Honey Bee”, by Guenther Hauk
"Bees and Honey: From Flower to Jar", by Michael Weiler
“The sacred Bee” by Hilda M. Ransome
“The Shamanic way of the bees”, by Simon Buxton
“The lost language of plants”, by Stephen Harrod Buhner
“Fruitless Fall”, by Rowan Jacobsen
www.spikenardfarm.org
www.demeter.net/
www.attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/nativebee.html
www.partnersforsustainablepollination.org/
www.biobees.com
www.beeguardian.org
www.mellifera.de

Excerpts from Demeter Standards for Beekeeping and Hive Products

The Melissa Garden is utilizing biodynamic agriculture methods and will seek Demeter certification. By extension, our beekeeper, Michael Thiele, is biodynamic beekeeping methods.

  • With the exception of fixings, roof coverings and wire meshing, hives must be built entirely of natural materials such as wood, straw or clay. The inside of the hive may only be treated with beeswax and propolis. Only natural, ecologically safe and non-synthetic wood preservatives may be applied to the hive exterior.
  • Swarming is the natural way to increase the number of bee colonies and is the only permitted means for increasing colony numbers.
  • The system of management cannot rely on the continual introduction of colonies, swarms and queens from elsewhere. Clipping the wings of queens is prohibited. Multiple and routine uniting of colonies as well as systematic queen replacement is not permitted.
  • A locally adapted breed of bee suited to the landscape should be chosen.
  • The comb is integral to the beehive. Therefore all combs should be constructed as natural combs. Natural combs are those constructed by the bees without the help of waxed midribs. Natural combs can be constructed on fixed or movable frames. Strips of beeswax foundation to guide comb building is permitted.
  • The brood area naturally enough forms a self-contained unity. Both comb and brood area must be able to grow as the bee colony develops through building more natural comb. The brood chamber and frame size must be so chosen that the brood area can expand organically with the combs and without being obstructed by wood from the frames. Separation barriers are not allowed as integral elements of the management system.
  • Honey and blossom pollen are the natural foods for bees. The aim should be to winter them on honey. All pollen substitutes are forbidden.
  • A bee colony should be able to correct any occurring imbalances out of its own resources. Measures taken by the Demeter beekeeper should aim to reinforce and maintain its vitality and capacity for self regeneration. The occasional loss of colonies particularly susceptible to certain pests and diseases should be accepted as a necessary part of natural selection.



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