The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861
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Organic Beekeeping

- April 1, 2015 - Ray Nabors - (excerpt)

Last month this column had suggestions on how to keep bees in an agricultural environment where acres are treated with insecticide 1-2 times each season, fungicide 1 time each season and herbicides 3-4 times each season. My suggestions were based on 34 years of experience keeping bees in this environment. I have proven it can be done. This month we will talk about all natural beekeeping. At this location it is impossible for me to keep bees according to “organic” standards. There is no way I could assure anyone that my colonies never get into a flowering crop field that has no pesticide residue of any kind.

It may surprise you that a few growers here have organic farms. Organic remains a niche market, but a growing market. I have other growers who produce “all natural.” Like my honey bees their products cannot meet organic standards, but they avoid as much chemical control as possible and plant non-genetically modified seed. Conventional crops have a premium because so many countries will not buy GMO crops. Again, this is a market opportunity. People should be able to buy what they want. If someone is willing to pay a premium for organic or all natural or non-GMO, it will become available at some price. These products cannot be produced for less.

Product labeling, in my opinion, should indicate “organic”, “all natural” or Non-GMO. The people who buy my comb honey know that I do not use miticides in my colonies. They are aware that my colonies are not treated with pharmaceuticals (antibiotics). My honey and pollen still help their allergies and provide the most natural sweetener in this area. We have room for everyone, large commercial producers, sideline beekeepers and hobby beekeepers. Honey is good for you, regardless of whether it is organic or not. I always tell people who try to politely ask about cheaper honey in the store to look at the label. It must indicate if the honey is made in the USA. If not, I suggest they do not buy it. There are no controls on the contents of foreign honey. It can be contaminated, adulterated and will be from honey and pollen sources not native to where we live. Local honey is always best.

Seventy miles west of here, honey can be produced organically on the Ozark Mountain Plateau. It is difficult to keep more than 15 colonies in a location. The locations need to be two miles apart. A banner honey crop would be two supers of honey extracted per colony. The most comb honey you could expect would be one super. I think I will stay where I am.

“Certified Organic Honey”
What does it take to have “Certified Organic Honey”? The area where organic honey is produced requires honey sources that are free of chemical fertilizers, chemical medicine for insects and fungi and chemical herbicides. It is a requirement that any crops or plants within 3 miles of the apiary are free of any chemical use except for natural products available for pest control on organic crops. There is no place in the Mississippi Delta from Missouri to New Orleans which can meet that standard. There are many places with untreated pasture where animals graze and many other locations where public and private forests can provide habitat for organic honey production. I doubt any town or urban environment could meet this standard. Ninety percent of gardeners use chemical pest control for their plants, reluctantly by some.

There is an advantage to keeping hives up off the ground and in a sunny location. It has been proven that hives on a raised platform 16 – 18 inches off the ground have fewer small hive beetles. Hives out in the sun will require more water for cooling, but they will have fewer mites. My colonies are on raised hive stands. In my opinion it is too hot here to keep them in direct sun all day. In the spring screen bottom boards go under every colony and they stay on until fall. Many mites in a colony will fall through the screen bottom boards and never make it back to the hive.

Even 50 percent mite control is not enough in most seasons, so other methods must also be employed. I do use formic acid. There are formulations which are safer to handle. Formic acid is a natural compound for bee hives. Bees, like ants, produce formic acid to keep their hives clean of bacteria and fungi. If you raise the concentration of formic acid in the hive, most of the tracheal mites will leave or die. The Varroa mites will fall off the bees through the screen bottom board. I will use formic acid in the fall before closing the screen bottoms for winter.

Another method of control I include if Varoa mite infestations are heavy is drone foundation sheets. Put a sheet of drone size foundation in the middle of the brood chamber. The bees draw it out and the queen will lay it full of drones, which are more attractive to the mites. The mites migrate to drone brood like mules heading for the barn after work. When the bees cap the drone brood, trapping the mites, remove it and place another frame of regular comb or foundation in the brood chamber. Then put the drone comb in a freezer overnight. I do this only when necessary and before formic acid treatment. It disrupts the colony and reduces productivity when so many drones are produced. Late summer is the best time so the bees are willing to produce drones and the mite load will be reduced before fall.

Other Organic Honey Requirements
Organic honey production requires wooden hive bodies and wooden supers. Plastic is not …