Book review: Michael Bush on “organic” beekeeping and varroa control

The Practical Beekeeper – Beekeeping Naturally by Michael Bush

The author runs 200 Langstroth and a few Top Bar hives in Nebraska and has become known as something of a guru in US circles, where he follows an “organic” beekeeping path – which broadly speaking is what we in the UK would call low intervention or natural beekeeping, but usually with conventional hives.

Good points

  • Lots of information culled from his responses to specific questions on on a very broad range of topics. That website, by the way, is worth checking out – it is a major organic beekeeping network in the USA (14,000 registered users).
  • Particularly good at telling you why to do things.
  • He uses zero chemicals for varroa control (not even essential oils); natural comb.

Bad points

  • Poor quality black and white photos and the type on some pages is offset; loads of typos
  • Three volumes in one book (beginner – intermediate – advanced). This makes for a complex Contents page, and information on one subject being spread out through the book, and significant repetition of information.
  • No index.
  • Reads more like a collection of notes than a coherent book.
  • Lots of stuff about Langstroth hives, irrelevant to a UK reader.

Despite the bad points I found it an extremely interesting read as it is stuffed with lots of useful tidbits, and is pretty easy to read. Here is a flavour of the contents.

Michael Bush on natural comb and varroa control

He uses framed hives (Langstroths) without foundation, being a firm believer in natural cell size, uncontaminated wax, and allowing as much drone comb as the bees want. I learnt that foundation was deliberately designed to give 150% natural size bees, as someone thought this would make them more efficient at gathering nectar. (In fact, it seems to significantly reduce the range they can fly – p.161 – based on observations of the pollen they return with; but beekeeping has a history of going with the loudest opinion, not fact based evidence). To stress this point: a 4.8mm cell has a volume of ~200 cubic mm and a 5.55mm cell, a volume of ~300 cubic mm. Foundation makes for an obese worker bee.

He also notes that in his experience, American queens in hives with clean wax seem to last 3 years instead of a few months.

He remarks that he tried zero treatment of hives and it did NOT get rid of varroa… until he combined this with naturally drawn comb. THAT eliminated varroa.

Why should small cells help versus parasites?

  • He’s compared capping and uncapping times (of brood) and finds they are both 24 hours shorter with natural sized cells compared to foundation-drawn cells. As the female varroa mite lays one egg per 30 hours, this reduces numbers of varroa.
  • He speculates that as bees are known to chew out cocoons in used brood comb to get them back to a preferred size, and this behaviour triggers around 4.9mm, small cells may have an advantage in that the bees could leave several layers of old cocoon in a large cell, and those layers could store pathogens.

He points out that a recently escaped swarm from a heavily managed colony will be large bees (raised on foundation) with weak genetics and likely die after a couple of years, which contributes to the myth that feral bees die out. Given the chance, they will regress their cell size over a couple of generations to a more natural size – and the bee space required between their combs will reduce by a couple of mm (and so will the thickness of the comb). Those of you with TBH’s reading this will probably say “aahhhh…” at this point.

This works both ways. The bee space between combs has some influence on cell size: if you are trying to regress a colony rapidly you can space the bars at just 1.25″ to encourage them to build small cells. Also, closely spaced combs somewhat discourage the building of the larger drone cells, if you’re interested in that.

Other interesting stuff from the book

  • New white wax indicates a nectar flow has begun.
  • The juice from plantain leaves is a good bee sting treatment. Plantain is also a British weed – varieties called ribwort and rat’s-tail are common, and are indeed a folk remedy for (among other things) stings.
  • You can have too much ventilation if you leave a screened bottom completely open. Not only does it chill the colony too much in winter, but as bees cool a hive by evaporation, it can prevent them cooling on really hot days by disrupting the air flow.
  • Swarms may, or may not be feral “survivor” stock. True ferals, rather than escapees from an apiary, tend to be smaller bees; darker than the popular Italian imports; and have different traits to the ones people breed for, such as sticky propolis and running around a lot on the comb.
  • Italians need ~60% more stores and more bees to survive winter, than ferals.
  • He is a big fan of not taking too much honey from a hive. He argues: if you take too much you need to feed them sugar later in the year. How much money do you make from this after you add in the cost of driving to the apiary etc; and sugar’s neutral pH is far more hospitable to various pathogens than honey’s alkaline pH, so the less sugar you feed a hive the better.
  • The American bee gene pool was already limited, being descended from imported European stock. In the last few years a fear of Africanised Honey Bees has led to many beekeepers buying queens from a handful of queen rearers, rather than using local ones or raising their own. This leads to further inbreeding and loss of variation. He notes there is no incentive for queen rearers to sell you a queen which lasts a long time.
  • Don’t give a colony a huge area to patrol which they can’t use (i.e, too much drawn comb in the hive). It means they can’t guard it effectively and parasites such as wax moth can thrive. I guess this is particularly true in winter when the colony dies back.
  • Hives are an ecosystem. Miticides also kill the 32 known types of mite that live in harmony with the bees and which probably feed pseudo-scorpions which eat problem mites. Benign fungi, bacteria and yeasts help digestion and crowd out pathogens – there are 8,000 known types of microbe in the commensality of a beehive. The chalk brood fungus suppresses European Foul Brood; stone brood fungus prevents nosema. It’s a balance. He theorises that dousing the hive with antibiotics and miticides or even essential oils like thymol kills these off; suddenly the pollen is indigestible and there is malnutrition in the midst of abundant food. (This is a symptom of CCD.)

For more wisdom from Michael Bush see his website.

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2 Responses to Book review: Michael Bush on “organic” beekeeping and varroa control

  1. solarbeez says:

    I started liking Michael Bush when I heard a podcast of him talking about the ‘ecosystem’ in the hive. It made perfect sense that if you hang a miticide in the hive, it will kill ‘good mites’ too. It seems we’re always in a rush to kill things that we perceive to be a problem. The people I’ve talked to (more experienced beekeepers) only focus on the varroa. I don’t think they even know there are beneficial mites that will be affected. Thanks for detailing some of those fungi. I didn’t know that about chalk brood suppressing EFB or stone brood fungi suppressing nosema, but I might borrow that info for the bee club I’m in. 🙂


  2. hunneybun says:

    Hi Paul This was a really interesting book review. Thanks. Helen



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