Bees are an important component of many ecosystems. Their role in the pollination of plants is essential for the propagation of many species, and in recent years concerns about declining bee populations have fuelled fears of a huge decrease in biodiversity and of blooming populations of pests that bees predate.
On a permaculture plot bees perform the same function. Planting a wide variety of plants with different blooms that appeal to the bees can help attract them to your plot, but the gardener could also consider installing a beehive on their site. Not only does this have the benefit of having the creatures permanently on the site to perform the important pollination functions, it has the secondary function of providing an edible product in the form of honey.
Check with Others
There are four groups of people you need to check with before embarking on your beekeeping adventure. First, your family. You will need everyone to be comfortable with having bees permanently in the garden. Secondly, check with your doctor. It might sound an odd port of call to consult a doctor about a permaculture project, but a small minority of people is allergic to bee stings, and can suffer significant health consequences if stung. A doctor can do a simple test to check whether you or any member of your family is at risk. Thirdly, check with your neighbors. One of them may have an allergy or objection to having bees in close proximity. If you get the go ahead from the first three groups, check with your local government authority. There may be zoning laws that prohibit the keeping of bees in your location.
Choose a Site
Just as you would for any other livestock animal, you need to choose a site that will meet all the needs of your bees. You want to have lots of plants nearby that will offer them food; so blooming species are a must (bees are active from spring to fall, when plants are most likely to be in bloom, and them hibernate in the winter). They will also need access to a body or water. If possible, site the hive in full sun, so that they get as long a day to work as possible, but protect the hive from winds that are very strong, as they risk toppling the hive and dispersing your colony. You also want to choose a site that has high fences and trees nearby. This forces the bees to fly higher up rather than at person height. And, finally, place it somewhere so that you have easy access to it, as you will need to work with the hive regularly.
Create a Stand
Beehives should be kept elevated off the ground. This allows for air circulation within the hive and protects the hive from break-ins by ground predators. It is also easier for the permaculture gardener if the hive is elevated, as you don’t have to bend down to work on the hive. Old concrete blocks with a wooden pallet across are a viable beehive stand.
Build a Hive
Beehives comprise a series of sheets of beeswax that hang vertically inside a box. The hive has at least two levels of sheets, one where the bees raise their young, and one on top where they store the honey. You will need to purchase or construct a tiered box, with racked frames on which to hang the sheets of beeswax. You may be able to source a hive from another beekeeper, or you can build your own from recycled materials.
Get Some Gear
Beekeeping does require some initial outlay. There are two pieces of kit that are the minimum you will need: a hood and a smoker. The hood comprises a hat and a veil that falls or is secured below the neck so that bees cannot get tangled in your hair or sting vulnerable parts of your face. You could fashion your own version, but seek advice from an experience beekeeper to ensure you are suitably protected.
You may feel more comfortable, particularly when first starting out, to source a full body suit, which includes boots and gloves, but as you get more used to handling the bees, just a hood should be sufficient. Again, ask other local beekeepers if they have any second-hand suits they wish to dispose of.
The smoker is an essential bit of kit for handling the bees. Comprising a cylinder with a bellows attached, you burn wood in the cylinder – pine needles work well, but any rotten wood will do – then pump it into the hive when you want to do any work with it. The smoke scrambles the chemical messages that the bees send to one another about what to do, so they become disorientated and more subdued, and leave you alone so you can carry out whatever work is necessary.
Get Some Bees
Once your hive is set up, its time to stock it. You can buy colonies from reputable organic suppliers. There are three species that are commonly available. Italian bees are very easy to manage and produce a lot of honey. Russian bees are also docile, but can be less productive at the start of spring, while Carniolans are hardy bees that can withstand even very cold winters.
An alternative option from buying bees is to offer to house a problem colony. Contact local beekeepers and pest controllers. They are sometimes called to remove a bee colony that has set up home in an unsuitable location, perhaps on a school playing field or the eaves of a nursing home, and rather than destroying the bees, you could give them a new lease of life. And if the colony has set up somewhere locally, it’s a good sign that they are adapted to the local climate conditions and that they have found sufficient food in the area to thrive.
Bear in mind that if you are establishing a new colony, the hive may not produce enough extra honey for you to harvest in its first year. This is when the colony will be building up its numbers. But by year two, you should be able to harvest some honey, and even before then the bees will be an important part of your permaculture ecosystem.