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Interview with Leo Sharashkin

Editor Leo Sharashkin

Today's author interview featuring our winning giveaway question is with Leo Sharashkin, the editor of Keeping Bees with a Smile: Principles and Practice of Natural Beekeeping.

The second edition of bestselling Keeping Bees with a Smile shows beginner and practicing beekeepers how to attract local bee swarms, keep bees healthy and productive, build simple bee-friendly hives, and harvest honey without stressing bees. Chock-full of techniques for natural beekeeping.

Do bees really disappear?

We’ve all heard it many times over: bee colonies are collapsing in large numbers due to disease and parasites, poisoning, and for many other reasons. In agricultural landscapes with monocultures sprayed with pesticides, not only honey bees, but all pollinators are in serious decline. Take a map of acreages under corn, and a map of the density of pollinators, and you will see that bees and other pollinators simply cannot survive where land is poisoned and impoverished by industrial agriculture. The loss of natural habitat is the biggest challenge for bees – and for other forms of life.

Not only that, but many conventional beekeeping practices are very hard on the bees. Most American beekeepers use bee strains that are not acclimated to their location. These commercial semi-domesticated bees also have very low levels of disease resistance and require regular chemical treatments. Instead of the wholesome diet of natural pollen and honey, many colonies are “robbed” by the beekeeper and are given sugar syrup instead – a food bees (and us!) cannot thrive on. So it is not surprising that bees in conventional beekeeping settings are not doing very well. Beekeepers commonly experience large losses and replenish their apiaries with newly bought “package bees” every spring.

Yet at the same time the wild honey bees living in the woods are thriving. Wherever plentiful habitat is still left, their numbers today are at the same level as several decades ago. Research showed that the average life span of an established wild colony is over six years, without any treatments against disease, without sugar feeding, or any management whatsoever. For comparison, a colony of commercial bees, if left to its own devices, is unlikely to survive even two years.

The wild honey bees show us that bees can still live healthy and productive lives. So we need to learn from them and use a beekeeping approach that mimics how bees live in nature. Countless beekeepers around the world – both hobbyists and professionals – are successful in keeping bees without chemicals, sugar, or many of the disruptive practices of conventional beekeeping. Their bees are not disappearing; on the contrary many such beekeepers have hundreds of their own colonies and supply healthy disease-resistant bees to others every year.

Fedor Lazutin, author of Keeping Bees with a Smile, was one of Europe’s leading natural beekeepers, and I am using his approach with much success in my forty horizontal hives nested in the Ozark woodlands in southern Missouri.

How many pounds of honey can I get from a backyard hive?

Your honey crop will depend on many factors. First and foremost, on the abundance, diversity, and quality of nectar plants within two miles of your hive. Colony management will play another major role. For example, if you feed your bees sugar, they’ll collect a much bigger honey crop. I never feed my bees sugar, though, as their health and the quality of honey is more important to me than the quantity.

In a good habitat and with skillful management, it is not uncommon for colonies to collect 100 lb of surplus honey in a good year, perhaps 50 lb (4 gallons) being a realistic average in many places.

I am well aware, though, that there is a very real tradeoff between the quantity of honey and the health of the colony. Colonies that produce maximum crops have more health issues and are less likely to survive the following winter. As any organism, a honeybee colony has a limited amount of resources and energy that can be spent on different things. If they go after maximum honey production, other areas of their life inevitably suffer, such as health and procreation. This applies to any agricultural crop or animal – you can grow a certain quantity of, say, corn using all-natural organic methods. But running after maximum production per acre, you are pushing the plant beyond its biological limits and create a highly unnatural environment where pests and depleted soil fertility will become major problems.

I would rather have healthier bees than record-breaking honey yields, so I practice minimally invasive colony management using horizontal hives and harvest, on average, between 20 lb and 30 lb per colony, leaving the bees ample reserves of honey and pollen for the winter. This is the approach championed by Fedor Lazutin, author of Keeping Bees with a Smile, who inspired countless beekeepers to adopt bee-friendly methods that put the bees first.

Considering that I never feed my bees sugar, never treat them with chemicals or antibiotics, I think I have a very good result: healthy bees and plentiful honey. And if you need more honey, just breed more colonies from your own best survivor stock and grow the number of hives almost exponentially. This was the traditional beekeeping approach used for centuries until 100 to 150 years ago: instead of pushing bees for the largest production per hive, compromising their health, just increase the number of hives.

Is beekeeping hard?

It entirely depends on what bees, hive model, and beekeeping system you choose. The conventional approach with vertical hives can be physically challenging and – due to heavy hive mortality – disheartening. One of my friends, a commercial beekeeper from Michigan, joked that all the money he had made on bees during his beekeeping career he then had to spend on knee replacements, hip replacements, and back surgeries. Having a bad back is almost stereotypical of a beekeeper because of all the lifting involved.

Such lifting may not be avoidable if you have hundreds or thousands of hives that you move around the country on tractor-trailers to pollinate almonds in California, apple orchards in Washington and so forth. But if you only have a few hives on your farm or in your backyard, consider natural beekeeping methods described in Keeping Bees with a Smile: using bee-friendly easy-to-manage horizontal hives (no lifting!), populating them with free local honeybee swarms (low cost and much healthier bees), and abstaining from chemical treatments or sugar feeding (bad for the bees and bad for you). With this approach, instead of a strenuous activity that requires a daily dose of ibuprofen, beekeeping becomes what is should be: a pleasurable hobby (or business!) accessible to everyone.

Winning Giveaway Question's

I’m a first time bee-keeper having supplies for a ten-frame box hive delivered this week. What is the number one piece of advice you’d give to someone like me?

Here’s the most important thing: any hive is only as good as the bees that live in it. Remember Winnie-the-Pooh talking about the “wrong sort of bees”? Winnie was spot on. If you go the conventional route of purchasing a package of bees to install in your hive box, be prepared to treat them against all kinds of ailments, feed them sugar, and you will likely lose them within the first year of beekeeping and will have to buy another package the following spring.

Yes, these bees will produce you honey, but as Winnie-the-Pooh said, the wrong sort of bees will produce the wrong sort of honey – it will be laced with the chemicals you put into your hives. And, the whole system being unsustainable and requiring constant management, treatments, and regular purchase of additional packages of bees, you will soon find that it is far cheaper to buy honey on the farmers market than to keep bees yourself. Add to that the fact that the box you have, when full of honey, will weigh around 70 pounds – for Heaven’s sake, don’t manipulate such weights on your own, else the cost of your beekeeping hobby may include some medical bills to treat hernias, hemorrhoids, knee replacements, and so on.

But is there another way? Yes. Instead of installing a package of bees with inferior disease resistance, you can use your box as a “bait hive” or “swarm trap” and attract free local honeybee swarms. Lightly scent the box with lemongrass oil and propolis, put it up in the tree in the spring (4-6 weeks after first flowers start blooming), and it will likely attract a stray honeybee swarm – the same way as bird houses attract birds. Once you have the “right sort of bees” in your box, your beekeeping will take a very different course – keeping bees with a smile. In all my beekeeping, I’ve never bought a single bee. When we established our apiaries in the Ozarks in southern Missouri, we went from zero hives to forty hives in just a few years by simply attracting wild swarms to hive boxes.

I know you asked for one most important piece of advice, and using local swarms for your bee stock is undoubtedly the single most important step to success. But I may add one more: consider housing your bees in horizontal hives – they require no heavy lifting, you have access to all frames at once, which allows managing your colony with minimal disturbance and without breaking your back.


Fedor Lazutin with Leo Sharashkin

Fedor Lazutin was one of Europe's leading natural beekeepers, the author of bestselling natural beekeeping guide Keeping Bees with a Smile. He founded a number of model apiaries southwest of Moscow, Russia, championed habitat restoration projects, and served as the first president of Russia's Ecovillage Union.

Leo Sharashkin, PhD, is a full-time natural beekeeper and founder of HorizontalHive.com He has edited numerous books on natural beekeeping, writes for major magazines, and speaks internationally on bee-friendly beekeeping. He holds a PhD in Forestry from the University of Missouri and a master's in Natural Resources from Indiana University. Sharashkin's forest apiaries are composed entirely of local wild honeybees housed in bee-friendly horizontal hives. He lives in the Ozarks of southern Missouri.

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