Why do you want to keep bees? The answer to that question will determine the type of equipment you use, the genetic stock you will use, and your approach to keeping bees.
The beginning beekeeping class offered by the Washington State Beekeepers Association teaches a methodology for keeping bees. Many people refer to this as the “standard” methodology. It is certainly the commercial methodology, what you will do if you want to keep bees in order to sell honey. The course assumes you will be using a particular kind of equipment, a particular kind of bee, and a particular approach to keeping bees. Any other approach is generally referred to as “alternative”. Many people recommend taking the course and learning how to keep bees the “standard” way before learning the “alternative” methods.
When you think about it though, a methodology designed for people who want to sell honey is not necessarily going to meet the needs of someone who is keeping bees for pollination or who is just interested in observing the bees. There are enough differences between the boxes, the genetic stock, and the methodologies that they form beekeeping approaches in their own right.
What I recommend is to choose your equipment, genetic stock, and beekeeping approach based on your reason for keeping bees.
A farmer came to me and said that she wanted to keep honeybees for pollination. She wanted to put bees in a box and forget about them. I recommended to her to take the beginning beekeeping class. She then set up Langstroth equipment and in good faith followed all the processes that she had been taught. She fed the bees, she inspected the bees, she treated the bees for diseases.
I realized later that I hadn’t listened to her properly. I know another farmer who’s doing exactly what she said she wanted to do. He built a Warre box, put in a package of bees, and never inspected them or treated them. He’s been doing this for several years now. Some years the entire hive dies and he collects the honey they left behind. One year his hive swarmed, so he built another box and put the swarm in it. Another year the hive swarmed and the swarm went into the spare box on its own. I said to him, if you go to the beginning beekeeping class we can teach you how to keep that box of bees alive through the winter. He said the trouble wasn’t worth it to him. The money he spent on the boxes bees each spring is the cost of pollination for his farm. I realized that I should have recommended this methodology to my farmer friend who asked how to keep bees for pollination. In fact, treatment free beekeeper Les Crowder calls the Warre box a “fire-and-forget” box.
Since I came into beekeeping with an interest in beekeeping as a way to save the bees, I knew the beginning beekeeping class wasn’t going to give me the information I needed to get started. My first year I started keeping bees in top bar boxes. None of the Langstroth methodology made sense to me, because Langstroth is a vertical system and top bar is a horizontal system. Also, the manipulation of the frames is very different from manipulation of bars. That’s just the equipment differences!
Fortunately West Sound Beekeepers Association has a class called “Beekeeping in the Pacific Northwest” which did teach me useful information. There was a section on bee biology, nectar sources, weather challenges, hands-on identification of varroa mites, and an overview of the various kinds of beekeeping equipment. The club’s mentors thought of this as an advanced class. For me, as a top bar natural beekeeper, it was the class I needed first.
The next year I did take the beginning beekeeping class for the state apprentice certification. By then I had become familiar with how to translate Langstroth terms to top bar terms. Even so, I spent a lot of the class saying “well I wouldn’t do it that way”, because my goals were different. I’m not interested in commercial beekeeping. I don’t want to keep bees to maximize honey production.
Recently I had a chance to lead a class for West Sound Beekeepers Association which we called “Intro to Beekeeping”. This class was filled with people who had seen the club’s booth at the county fair and were interested in knowing what it takes to keep bees. The sign-up sheet asked people if they were interested in keeping honey for commercial purposes, for their own family, for pollination, or other reasons. (I fall in the “other” category myself). Thirty-five people signed up for the class. None of them were interested in having a honey business. Quite a few people were interested in pollination or “other”. So we built the class around those requirements. We advised choosing equipment based on desired end result. If you are keeping bees for honey, use a Langstroth box. If you are doing pollination, use a Warre box.
“Other” is a big category. There are people like me who are interested in saving the bees; retired people looking for a hobby; urban homesteaders wanting to expand into keeping a few bees for a few jars of honey. Some people just want to observe the bees, others feel drawn to them for spiritual reasons. For all those folk top bar hive is a great choice. Top bar hives let you have a window that allows for observation of the bees all year long, day and night. They are also a bee-friendly type of hive because they allow the bees to draw their own comb and to move freely within the hive.
There are people who can’t lift the heavy, bulky Langstroth equipment. Top bar is a good choice for them as well, because top bar hives never move, you just move the combs. Langstroth equipment requires moving an entire box of frames at times, which can weigh from 40 pounds up to 90. Top bar combs rarely weigh more than 10 pounds. So this form of equipment makes it possible for people who would not be able to use Langstroth equipment to keep bees.
Commercial beekeepers use commercial beekeeping stock. That stock is genetically very inbred. Natural beekeepers are often advised to catch swarms. However, all swarms are not created equal. Many swarms are simply first year commercial stock hives that are attempting to reproduce. Feral honeybee stock is genetically different from commercial stock. Local breeders may be aware of “survivor” stock in their area and may be willing to sell queens or nucs. In the Kitsap area, Jason Deal, whose business is Star Valley Apiary, is maintaining several survivor lines and will sell queens and nucs.
People drawn to keeping bees in order to provide their families with honey, or simply to observe the bees, are generally not interested in the kinds of chemical treatment commercial beekeepers use on their hives. There is a great interest in treatment free beekeeping. Although it is tempting to associate the treatment free choice with the kind of equipment, in fact treatment free beekeepers can use Langstroth boxes. There are even commercial beekeepers who are treatment free. However, they are using a different genetic stock than commercial beekeeping stocks.
For all these reasons, I am hopeful that we can begin to shift our thinking as a beekeeping community away from the idea that there is a “standard” methodology for keeping bees. There are a number of choices people make in keeping bees, all of which are valid. As teachers it is our job to listen and to meet the needs of our students. I’m trying to get better at that! The right way to keep bees is the way that is successful for the reason you want to keep them.