One generally unbroken trend over the course of recent decades has been the shifting of consumer interest towards organic produce. While the US gives over significantly less land to organic agriculture than the likes of Europe or Australia, the organic farming movement has only become more prominent, with organic stores becoming a common sight across America and the rest of the world.
Organic agriculture has been around for about 100 years and began primarily as a reaction to the new farming methods that were making farming more efficient but, as every organic farmer would argue, at the expense of food quality. There is much to organic farming but the general (not incorrect) impression is that it avoids artificial chemicals, whether these be pesticides, fertilizer, or flavor-enhancing additives. Organic apiculture is no exception.
Organic beekeeping is a collective term for the apicultural practices that avoid the many artificial products available for nourishing and managing bee colonies.
Organic beekeeping, like all organic farming, is legally regulated and, for its products to be certified organic, most beekeepers comply with the organic farming standards recognized in that jurisdiction. Regardless of where the organic beekeeper is, however, there are also international standards that must be satisfied to attain the organic classification.
With beekeeping, you could even say the organic approach is even more important. This is because, despite the (largely deserved) reputation for being hard work, beekeeping rewards those who judiciously keep their hands off. Although there may be a lot of work to do in other areas, pollination, feeding, breeding, and honey creation are all tasks done by the bees themselves. There are even loud voices in the beekeeping community advising against feeding your bees in all but situations of evident starvation.
Organic Beekeeping in Practice
To begin with feeding then, organic beekeeping almost always prioritizes entirely natural feed for bees, although this isn’t actually because artificial feeds such as pollen patties, or certain nectar substitutes are full of scary chemicals. Bees are rather simple creatures (individually at least) and it doesn’t take advanced science to recreate their main nutrition sources. Except for the “royal jelly” fed to bees at the larval stage, bees eat only pollen and nectar (which later becomes honey), and the nutrition behind these is almost crudely simple: pollen provides protein and nectar/honey provides carbohydrates. The problem with artificial feed then is not the danger of what is added, but rather what is lost in the absence of the many trace substances that natural pollen and nectar contain.
These substances are in very small proportions, but include amino acids, vitamins, enzymes, organic acids, alkaloids, phenolics, glycosides, terpenoids, metal ions, and other volatile oils. It is precisely this that cannot be recreated with artificial feeding and, as we have only very recently begun to realize,this could have myriad adverse effects.
Organic beekeeping, then, largely follows a rule of thumb that should really be followed by all beekeepers – let the bees feed themselves. Not only will this ensure full provision of a nutrient content in nectar and pollen, but certain bees even seem to have preferences for a certain flower’s nectar or pollen. There is very likely a good reason for this preference, so organic beekeepers tread carefully around what they do not fully understand.
If a bee colony has to be fed (and there are indeed several situations where this is the case) then, as you’ve no doubt guessed, the products need to be organically produced. You will not be able to source your own nectar but honey from organic bee hives is usually the best option here as, although there’s no getting around the problem of bee preferences, this food is at least all natural.
Fertilizers, Pesticides and Other Chemicals
An avoidance of harmful fertilizers and chemicals is the aspect of organic agriculture with which most people are familiar, with the “organic” label being a guarantee that a product will be free of all the pesticides and fertilizers that have been getting a terrible press for decades now. But what fertilizers or pesticides are applied to bees?
Of course, it isn’t that beehives are sprayed with such chemicals. It is all down to the flora surrounding the hive. Bees operate as a part of a highly integrated ecosystem and if the flowers and plants within a colony’s flying radius have been treated with fertilizers, pesticides, or other chemicals, then that finds its way from the flower to the nectar, from the nectar to the bees, from there to other bees, and finally into the honey.
Accordingly, a beekeeping endeavor can only be termed organic if the land within the flying radius of the colony is organically farmed and there is nothing within that radius that could potentially jeopardize this consistency.
To certify an apiary organic, the manner of dealing with diseases needs also to forswear all artificial chemicals. Naturally, the world of diseases and treatments is full of artificial chemicals, often created with the sole intention of beating the disease, rather than staying natural. There are even bee diseases that necessitate an inorganic treatment, thereby losing a beekeeper his/her organic certification should their bees be unlucky enough to succumb to such diseases.
That said, there are organic treatments available for the most common bee diseases and regulating bodies for organic certification will insist that beekeepers use them. Varroa mite disease, for example, can be very effectively treated with certain essential oils and organic acids. The use of resistant bee varieties that are immune to certain diseases is also encouraged (see below).
To enforce such strictures placed on beekeepers within several different areas of their discipline, organic farming regulating bodies require meticulous records of feeding, disease treatment, and other processes that are carried out by the beekeeper. Accordingly, the progress of any diseases and how these are treated need to be logged and presented to these bodies. Maps even need to be kept to allow easy inspection by the relevant authorities.
Types of Bees
Not all bees are created equal – and bee breeders have a big part in this. For organic apiculture, there is a strong emphasis on the use of specific bee varieties that are known to be better at ensuring the “organic” nature of their eventual produce. This article here represents a great run down on the different types of bee stocks that are frequently used in apiculture.
There are several reasons why certain bee stocks are preferred by organic beekeepers but resistance to disease is a major one. There are some diseases where the most effective treatment will take the form of an inorganic substance, the use of which would jeopardize the organic classification of the whole apiary.
Thus, the type of bee kept is especially important for organic beekeeping. The Buckfast bee is pretty good at resisting tracheal mite; the Russian bee, varroa – and that matters.
The very construction of beehives is also important for the organic classification of apiaries. These beehives need to be made of natural materials, but this goes far beyond simply using wood. The presence of residue-free honeycombs, from other organic hives of course, need to be used in lieu of anything artificial. Furthermore, walls of wax are usually mandated too, which also needs to be organic.
The contents of your smoker also need to be organic, should you be after that classification. This means your smoker should mainly be filled with things such as dry leaf litter, wood sawdust, dry grass, or corn cobs. There is much that can be put in, and beekeepers often have their own favorite combinations, just so long as it is organic!