As with all aspects of food and homes, the more you can do yourself, the healthier your life will be. Growing produce in your own garden means you’ll avoid pesticide-laden commercial crops. Making your own skin care products or simple cleaners will keep harsh chemicals out of your home. So, with all the benefits bees and their hives offer our day-to-day lives, why is the practice of “natural beekeeping” not more popular?
While other methods of keeping hives may result in high costs, modest returns, and climbing bee mortality rates, the principles of natural beekeeping have not changed in a thousand years: Observe how bees live in the wild, and mimic the same conditions in your apiary. This style of beekeeping results in not only healthy and thriving bees, but safe and natural hive products that you can harvest and use at home — pesticide-free honey from your backyard is, of course, preferable to chemical-laced alternatives. But there’s more than honey to be had: Bees collect healthful pollen, produce useful beeswax, and ferment their own food source that’s as nutritious for humans as it is for the hive. When you keep bees naturally, you can gather and use these products to reap their nourishing rewards.
To learn tips and techniques for sustaining natural backyard bees, visit Beekeeping with Horizontal Hives for Less Stress. But if you’re a beekeeper ready to make the most of your thriving hives, or a consumer who wants to purchase the best products, let’s take a look at what sustainably-kept beehives can offer your home and your health.
How to Harvest Beeswax
For us, bees are, above all, honey-makers. But other hive products, including wax, can be even more valuable. Most of us are familiar with the applications of beeswax around the home, or have experienced its rich hydrophobic properties in personal care products. Fewer of us know that beeswax is antimicrobial, effective against several strains of bacteria and fungi, including Candida albicans. Crude beeswax has been used since ancient Egypt to help treat burns, wounds, and joint pain.
To harvest beeswax at home, cut honeycomb out of its frame, crush it thoroughly (a potato masher is helpful), and then strain the honey through a nylon sock or muslin. The wax that’s left in the muslin will be ready for processing.
If you have a small quantity of wax to render, stuff it into a gallon glass jar, and cover the opening with plain cotton fabric (for example, a clean old T-shirt) held in place by a rubber band. Invert the jar, and insert its neck into a small pot or similar container that will catch the dripping wax. Cover everything with a clear plastic bag, and set it in the sun on a hot day. The wax will melt, filter through the cloth, and collect in the receptacle under the jar.
For larger quantities of wax, you have two options. The easiest is to use a solar wax melter that works on the same principle as described previously. A solar wax melter is a 2-by-2-foot box with a double-glazed cover, a slanted steel pan inside, and a metal tub to collect the wax. The sun does all the work, and you get clean wax. The only drawback is that you’ll have to either build or buy a solar wax melter.
The other option doesn’t require special equipment, but it’s a bit more labor-intensive. You can use boiling water instead of solar heat to render your wax. Cut a square piece of plain, clean cotton from an old T-shirt or sheet. While 100-percent-cotton fabric is best, cotton-polyester blends are acceptable. Place your wax into the middle of the square, fold the ends together, and tie it into a tight bundle using a tie wire, string, or even a hair band.
Next, put the bundle into a large pot half-filled with water, and slowly boil it for about 30 minutes. Don’t leave it unattended, as wax is flammable. The melted wax will seep through the fabric, leaving behind all impurities, such as bee cocoons. When most of the wax is out, squeeze the bundle and remove it. Let the pot cool; wax is less dense than water, so it will rise and form a solid circle on top. Once this has happened, remove it from the pot, and your wax will be ready to use.
Congratulations! You now have your own wax that can be made into wonderful beauty or home care products.
Not By Honey Alone
Nectar gives bees energy, but they also need a protein source. It comes as pollen from plants. Many forager bees specialize in collecting pollen and bringing it into the hive on their hind legs.
Pollen is very nutrient-rich, containing up to 35 percent protein, free amino acids, and vitamins. It also demonstrates antifungal, antimicrobial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory actions. The bee pollen you buy in health food stores is obtained by covering the hive entrance with 3⁄8-inch wire mesh. As foragers squeeze through it, pellets of pollen are detached from their legs and fall into a special collection pan.
This “bee pollen,” however, isn’t what bees consume themselves. They first mix it with nectar and digestive enzymes and ferment it using lactic acid bacteria — the same beneficial bacteria we use for fermenting sauerkraut and milk. This fermented pollen inside the hive, stored in comb cells and sealed with wax and honey, is called “beebread.” It contains most of the benefits of plain pollen, but with even more nutritional value. Beebread is a source for peptides and free amino acids — including all of those considered essential. It’s more digestible than pollen, has a higher vitamin content, is a natural probiotic, and is one of the bee products with proven properties that help eliminate toxins.
Harvesting beebread is simple: During honey harvest, put aside frames that contain a lot of beebread. It may be plainly visible (cells filled with a moist paste of different colors — orange, yellow, gray, even pink or blue). But bees can also cover beebread with a layer of honey and cap it with wax, like an ordinary honey cell. To spot this hidden treasure, hold the frame up to the sun and take a look; the dark areas that light can’t penetrate are beebread.
Remove these parts of the comb with a knife or spoon (bees will repair the gaps), put them in a glass jar, and refrigerate them. You can also mix one part beebread with one part honey and homogenize it in a powerful blender or by putting it through a meat grinder. Consume this superfood in moderation; a teaspoon of beebread has pollen from about 20,000 flowers.
Bee pollen, especially in the form of beebread, is a wonderful food supplement, but only if it comes from an uncontaminated source. Pollen collected from conventional agricultural crops contains pesticide residue and is best avoided. Likewise, beebread should only be used if it comes from hives that were never treated with chemicals. You can harvest several pounds of beebread per colony, but be conscientious — as their primary protein source, beebread is precious to bees. If you’re not harvesting beebread at home, buy from beekeepers who practice sustainable beekeeping and don’t deprive their hives of the nutrients they may need to survive the winter.
If you raise your own bees, beebread is a wonderful product to sell. It’s much more valuable than honey, and you’ll have little to no sales competition. I sell my beebread for $80 per pound, and it’s always the first product to sell out.
Bees are extraordinary creatures with the ability to produce a number of beneficial products that we often overlook. And while it’s harmless to purchase these healthful hive products from sustainable beekeepers whose methods you trust, why not give natural beekeeping a try and discover the joy of harvesting straight from your own backyard bees?
Have You Heard About Bee Beds?
As if the gifts of honey, wax, and pollen aren’t enough, bees have something else to offer: You can sleep alongside them. Cover a horizontal hive with 3⁄8-inch-thick planks, and lie down on top of them. Bees produce so much vibration that this will give you a relaxing massage, their buzzing will lull you to sleep, and the soothing fragrance of the hive will envelop you. They produce so much heat that you can break a sweat, like you would in a sauna. These “bee beds” are increasingly common in Europe and Russia, used for relaxation and therapy, and I have one as well. You could even sell admission tickets. Sweet dreams!
Dr. Leo Sharashkin is editor of Keeping Bees With A Smile, a comprehensive book on natural beekeeping. He contributes to Mother Earth News, American Bee Journal, and Bee Culture, and speaks internationally on sustainable beekeeping and organic growing. Find him at www.HorizontalHive.com.