Organic Beekeeping

If you’re an organic gardener, and if you prefer to purchase organic food, then you may be keen to ensure you engage in organic beekeeping practices too.

On the other hand, you may simply be concerned about chemical usage – such as pesticides in hives (i.e. the kinds of veterinary treatments which are essentially pesticides to treat pests on honey bees, such as Varroa mites).

What Are The Standards For Organic Beekeeping And Producing Organic Honey?

Standards may vary across countries, and standards may evolve and change, but generally, organic beekeeping practice tends to advocate the use of natural materials in the build of beehives.

For beekeepers following the 'Natural Beekeeping' movement, there is a preference for wooden hives, with caution applied as to how that wood has been treated.

Update 2017:  Please note, this article was written some years ago and is somewhat out of date.  Please check with your local governing body for information about standards for organic beekeeping.

  • Managing bees in a way that promotes optimum health, whilst minimising (or possibly avoiding) use of conventional veterinary products for controlling diseases, mites, and by using natural, organic methods for dealing with problems in the bee hive and honey bee colony.  An example here is the use of lemon juice to deal with Varroa mites.  Some beekeepers advocate the use of icing sugar (powdered sugar) to encourage bees to groom.  Update:  See Varroa Resistant Honey Bees.

  • Placing honey bee hives on organic land, away from potential sources of contamination – foraging radius varies by country – at the time of writing, EU law advocates that the foraging radius on organic land must be 3km - please note, this standard may change, so please check).

  • Allowing honey bees to consume their own honey – that is, organic beekeepers do not remove all the honey from the bee hives – sufficient honey must be left for the bees themselves to feed upon during the winter months.

Some beekeepers like to build their own hives - specifically Top Bar Hives.

To read more about how to build a bee hive, and also to view and download some free plans, go to Bee Hive Construction.

Again, there are variations in standards, and standards can go further than this too, which may pose real obstacles to beekeepers wishing to sell organic honey, where in some countries, rules are particularly strict, and certification is expensive and difficult, as well as being tightly monitored. Other countries may not have such strict rules in reality.

In the UK, for example, regulatory requirements put many small scale beekeepers in a very difficult situation with regard to producing certified organic honey, yet many small scale beekeepers are following organic beekeeping practice to the very best of their ability – and who knows, to a higher standard than in some other countries. No doubt beekeepers in countries with similar strict standards feel similar frustrations.

Standards include (at the time of writing - but please check for latest regs):

  • That timber used to build bee hives is untreated.

  • An apiary must be sited on certified organic land, allowing a foraging radius of 4 miles (UK Soil Association standards), where nectar and pollen sources must also not be subject to potential pollution from motorways, incinerators, chemical plants etc.

    This may sound simple in practice, but in reality such stretches of land (which also have to be rich in forage material), are not likely to be available for many beekeepers - especially in England, which is a very densely populated country) to simply plonk his or her bee hives in such places, as and when they feel like it!

    As for most individual beekeepers, they are garden owners, rather than major land owners, and even if they garden organically themselves, they are unlikely to be able to guarantee organic to certification standards.

    This is worth taking into account if you buy honey from a local supplier, which I tend to advocate as a preference. Realise that organic beekeeping is a complex matter, and that all individual beekeepers can do, is do their best – but even this may not satisfy regulators.

  • If feeding of bees is required, only organic sugar may be given, and may take place only between the last honey harvest and 15 days before the first nectar flow.

  • If conventional veterinary products must be used, a prescription must be issued, wax must be replaced, and withdrawal from ‘organic’ is required for the period of one year.

  • If beeswax foundation and comb are being used, they must be made from organic beeswax – again, from certified organic hives, which is a complex matter in the first place.

    These are only SOME of the restraints. Then of course, there is the cost of Certification of the organic honey.

In practice, many beekeepers may take it upon themselves simply to follow organic beekeeping principles as far as they can, without the added complications of gaining certification, and the various hoops they would be required to jump through. They may simply focus on the bees, the health of the bees, and taking only some honey as and if appropriate/possible, for themselves.

Other beekeepers may incorporate organic beekeeping practices to various degrees into their natural beekeeping methods, a practice which also promotes the building of comb by the honey bees themselves, keeps chemicals out of hives, and uses top bar hives.

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