Bees and permaculture
Bees as key pollinators are so central to any cultivated or natural system that it seems obvious that a permaculture system should have bees. When we started planning our project it was immediately clear to me that this is one of the things I want to do as soon as we get hold of our site. After all, I had had bee hives in the late 70’s so it wasn’t all new to me. So as soon as we were sure we were buying this piece of land that became Iso-orvokkiniitty, I reserved three nucs. Funnily, similar to us wanting to move from the Helsinki metropolitan area to the countryside, also the bee nucs came from Helsinki – they were urban bees now heading to the country-side.
Bees are multifunctional with at least the below functions:
- pollinating plants
- important for good yields of cultivated plants and for seed production
- important for pollinating wild plants and thereby increasing yields of f.ex. wild berries
- increasing biodiversity
- producing honey for our own consumption and for sale (or for feeding mycelium liquid culture)
- producing pollen, propolis and other speciality products
- producing wax for use in beekeeping but also for other purposes (mushroom cultivation, candles etc)
- producing more beehives (expanding own apiary, sales of nucs/hives)
- crop protection (f.ex. distributing mycelium against Botrytis cinerea infection on strawberry)
- eadible insects (drone larvae which are taken from the hive as a part of varroa-prevention).
Outdoor mushroom cultivation is an other area I want to develop, so you can see a few links between bees and mushroom above. Bees collect not only nectar but also honeydew. Less known is that they can also collect sap of mycelium.
Apart from honeybees there are of course other important natural pollinators. There are over 30 species of bumble bees (Bombus sp) and over 190 species of wild bees in Finland. Also these should be promoted by maintaining their habitats and building nests for them. For several plants bumble bees are much more effective as pollinators than bees. Bumble bees are even commercially available for strawberry, fruit and greenhouse cultivation but I am not sure if it is acceptable to use them as they are imported and might affect natural populations.
In this blog there are several postings about beekeeping in Finnish which you can find under the ”mehiläiset” category. You can try Google translate but Finnish doesn’t translate too well (I tried and I don’t understand all of it myself even though I have written the articles). But I usually post a lot of photos too…
As you can see I started with ordering the material for building Farrar hives. This is a movable frame hive with smaller frames and boxes than the Langstroth hive which is most common in Finland. However only the height is different so it is common also to mix Farrar with Langstroth – mainly using Farrar as honey boxes. I chose to use only Farrar to protect my back from too heavy loads. The boxes are 27 mm spruce which is sufficient for wintering the bees in Finland. Most beekeepers would use light styrox hives, but those are not allowed in organic production and I would hate to have styrox around anyway.
Beekeeping has become extremely popular in Finland – which is a good thing of course. However as a consequence it can be difficult to find hives to start with. We have a friend Auli Kontinen in the permaculture network who is an urban bee keeper in Helsinki. She promised to prepare 3 early nucs for me. I took my Farrar boxes to her place and received the nucs on the 11th June (last year). They had good time to get stronger before autumn.
The summer was pretty unproblematic and if I had questions I consulted the Finnish beekeeping textbooks (Mehiläishoitoa käytännössä) or called Auli or a local organic beekeeper Hannu Salonen. I added boxes as needed – up to 5 boxes per hive. When the nucs are made early they can become pretty strong and even produce some honey. The biggest challenge for beekeepers is the varroa-mite – as seems to be almost everywhere in the world. Varroa is managed in Finland with several actions and both organic and non-organic beekeepers do pretty much the same:
- The population is monitored with a white bottom board. Many beekeepers don’t do this as they rather just do the next steps routinely anyway. In my case I found mites corresponding to 1-3 mites per day.
- An empty frame is added in the brood area, which the bees build exclusively into drone brood. This is cut out just before the drones hatch thereby eliminating a good part of the varroa population.
- Tymol strips are put in the hive after collecting all the honey from the hive. I applied them on 17th August and left them in the hives for a few weeks.
- Oxalic acid is applied as liquid on the bee cluster. This needs to happen so late that there is no brood. If there is still brood in the hive the mites in the comb would not be affected. I applied oxalic acid on 20th December. Now there seems to be a discussion going on about doing the oxalic acid treatment again in the spring.
In July and August we collected the honey from the hives – the final collection on August 16th. Altogether we extracted 37 kg from the 3 hives which I thought was pretty good- originally I didn’t expect to get almost anything. We fed the hives roughly 20 kg organic sugar per hive and left them in 2 Farrar boxes. In Finnish beekeeping collecting most of the honey and feeding sugar is considered a must. We are too north for wild honeybee populations to survive. Bees do not defecate in the hive. On the other hand they do not hibernate in the winter. They stay together in a winter cluster and eat honey/sugar to produce heat. If they are left with honey for the winter their intestines will get full sooner and they have to fly out to defecate. A bee who flies out of the hive in the winter months will not survive. In Southern Finland bees have to keep in the hive for up to 5 months and in Lapland even much longer. Therefore sugar functions better as it has virtually no undigestible elements that would fill the intestines of the bees – it is pure energy. I have been checking on the hives through the winter and so far they seem to be doing fine. But it is the spring which is the riskiest period because when the queen starts to lay eggs the food consumption increases drastically. If they run out of sugar and honey before there is any pollen and nectar hive they starve…
So all in all it was a good first year of beekeeping for us. We got some honey (Marja consumes a lot) and so far it seems that we could get all the 3 hives over the winter.
In the winter there isn’t a lot you can do with the bees but of course reading about bees is an option. Of course as a long time organic farming advocate and now permaculturist I was interested to know more about organic and natural beekeeping. On one of my trips to the US I found Ross Conrad’s book Natural Beekeeping, which I read last autumn. While it was interesting enough to read it didn’t seem to be what I was looking for. Ross is very critical about mainstream American beekeeping so reading the book did give a lot of information about that. In comparison mainstream beekeeping in Finland isn’t all that bad. So after a while I was browsing the web googling for natural beekeeping and permaculture beekeeping and came across Phil Chandler’s Barefoot Beekeeper. Also I was advised to have a look at Patrick Sellman’s web-site småbruk.se which contains a lot of information about his experience in adapting Phil’s ideas to Sweden ( his farm is at the same latitude as southern Finland). Already while reading Barefoot Beekeeper I knew this is something I need to try. So in January I built three horizontal top bar hives according to barefoot ideas – all with observation window, periscope entrance and eco floor included. Now they are waiting for action next summer. The plan is to make three nucs from the Farrar hives into the hTBH’s and have the two types of hives side by side.