Why Saving The Bees Might Be Simpler Than We Think

You may already be familiar with the disappearance of our world’s honey bees, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), and the grave dilemma it presents: one third of our food, including nearly all our fruits and vegetables, relies on bees for pollination somewhere along the chain of production.  Scientists have been unable to pinpoint a single cause of the declining bee population, which has been dying off at annual rates of around 30%.  Autopsied bees have shown a variety of diseases and health complications, but one Argentine beekeeper may just have a way of saving the bees from all of these problems.

Oscar Perone has been a beekeeper in his home country since 1964.  Concerned about the bees’ well being, he wanted to design a beekeeping system that would benefit the bees above anyone else.  Since bees have survived at least 35 million years without any help from humans, Perone turned to the wild to study how colonies functioned in nature.  From his observations he realized conventional apiculture which has been used for almost two centuries interferes with techniques the bees have perfected over eons of evolution.  While Perone doesn’t believe that apicultural practices are directly causing CCD, he argues that they lower a colony’s immunity to illness and toxins. 

In the wild a beehive consists of a large nest (usually located inside a giant tree) with pollen stored on the sides and honey stored above.  The honey serves as food and insulation from the cold.  In Langstroth hives – standard industrial hives – Perone claims the panels are not high enough to build the big healthy nest bees need to stay healthy.  The nest is further stressed when beekeepers use smoke to drive the bees deeper in the hive so that honey can be taken. Furthermore most beekeepers harvest all the honey, leaving nothing for the colony, which is instead fed white sugar and other processed chemicals lacking the nutrients found in the bees’ natural alimentation.  Additionally commercial hives are covered with plastic ponchos in the winter with the intention of keeping the bees warm and dry, but this causes excess humidity and a lack of ventilation within the colony, breeding ideal conditions for disease and pathogens.

Another big weakness Perone identifies in conventional apiculture is the use of synthetic stamped wax.  In nature bees construct their hive out of a waxy material they themselves excrete as a waste product.  The cells honeybees make are smaller than the cells of the synthetic wax.  Stamped wax with enlarged cells was first fabricated in 1893, with the idea that bees would grow bigger over time and produce more honey.  Commercial bees did enlarge but the change in cell size also gave the Varroa destructor better access within the hive.  Since the 1960s (1990s in the U.S.) this mite has been entering honeycombs, reproducing, and transmitting debilitating diseases to bees.    

Perone’s hives though have never had any trouble with Varroa destructors or CCD.  Since 2004 he’s been using his own system, “Permapiculture” (“Permanent” + “apiculture”) He never uses commercial “nuc colonies” but instead attracts wild swarms to his hives, which are made to simulate a natural beehive. 

In his latest design Perone stacks square wooden frames to a combined height of 57 centimeters.  The uppermost frame has wooden bars nailed across it with spaces in-between.  The bees use these bars to begin constructing their panels.  No manmade panels, wire, or synthetic stamped wax is used.  This 57 centimeter tall space is exclusively for the bees’ nest and honey reserves. “In order to maintain health, a hive needs three things,” Perone explains.  “Lots of space, lots of honey, and lots of peace.  The beekeeper must never disturb this part of the hive.”

Over the bees’ portion of the hive are three smaller frames interlaced with wooden bars.  These frames are for the beekeeper.  Believe it or not after the bees have filled their section of the hive with honey they will continue to fill these upper frames.  When Perone harvests he only moves the roof and these three upper frames and bars, leaving the bees in peace.  Mr. Perone’s hives yield on average 120 kilograms of honey: 100 kilograms are harvested from the beekeepers’ section and 20 kilograms are left in the bees’ section for their nourishment, insulation, and protection.  An average Langstroth hive yields between 20 to 60 kilograms of honey per year. 

Perone is currently sharing his work with scientists at the University Austral of Chile, in hope that they will research and possibly validate his ideas.  Until then he has the testimonies of numerous professional beekeepers throughout Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, Columbia, and Mexico, all of whom have made the switch to PermApiculture within the past eight years.  Every one of them has the thriving hives needed to demonstrate that Perone’s method may be able to save the bees.   

Photo Credits:  José Miguel Rueda, Alexis Torres

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