Beekeeping with Horizontal Hives for Less Stress

Natural beekeeping practices can minimize the stress and work involved in modern apiculture.

| Summer 2018

How many people dream of having a few bustling beehives in their backyard? Thousands, surely. But here’s a typical scenario: You go to a beginners’ beekeeping class and do everything suggested. You buy equipment and protective gear, order packages of bees, install them in the hives, feed them sugar, treat them against parasites and disease, and then ... they don’t survive the first winter. So you buy more bees the following spring, but the cycle repeats itself.

Faced with high bee mortality rates, mounting costs, and modest returns, even many expert beekeepers hang up their suits. There are half as many bee colonies in the United States today as there were in the 1940s, and the majority of those that do remain are treated with chemicals and trucked around the country to pollinate big commercial monoculture crops, such as almonds. Travel stresses the colonies, spreads disease, and produces honey laced with pesticides. Two-thirds of the honey consumed in the United States today is imported, while the media is full of reports of honeybees dying off on a massive scale.

Fortunately, there’s another way to keep bees: natural beekeeping in horizontal hives. Its principles haven’t changed in a thousand years: Observe how bees live in the wild and mimic those conditions in your apiary. Georges de Layens, one of Europe’s leading beekeepers in the 19th century, offered three keys to sustainable apiculture. First, use local bees that are disease-resistant and adapted to the climate and flowering patterns in your area. Second, keep bees in appropriate hives that imitate a natural tree nest and match the climate of your region. Finally, practice sensible management in tune with the bees’ biological needs, and disturb them as little as possible. Layens gave his name to the hive system I prefer, referred to as either “Layens hives” or “horizontal hives.”

Follow these simple rules, and beekeeping will become what it used to be — a joyful and productive occupation that requires relatively little effort and brings great rewards. Whether you aspire to have a few hives for pleasure and honey, or to make your living with beekeeping, you can do it successfully and with minimal cost. Let’s get you off to a good start.

Work Smarter, Not Harder

In his 1835 book Practical Beekeeping, Russian beekeeper Nicolai Vitvitsky writes, “Peasant families commonly have 1,000 hives. Tending these takes little effort, so the owner can work his fields and attend to other matters.”

Today, conventional beekeeping has become so complicated that running even a dozen hives calls for a lot of dedication, expertise, and expense; it’s hard to imagine managing 1,000 hives without a team of employees. The difference is that modern beekeepers — like their counterparts in other branches of agriculture — want to increase honey output beyond what the bees would naturally produce. Increasing production requires more input and management, and it’s hard on bees and beekeepers alike.

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