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Hello from Berlin – a couple questions

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    Kevin Pfeiffer

    Hello southern California Honeylovers,

    My name is Kevin Pfeiffer. I lived (Pasadena) and worked (all over) in the Los Angeles region for 18 years before we uprooted and moved to Germany in 2001. I began beekeeping here in Berlin in 2012 and now have two hives in a small garden on the roof of our apartment. My hive of choice is a low-management type called the Bienenkiste (BEE-nen-kis-ta), which is based on a very old design called the Krainer hive — essentially a long, flat box that was worked from the bottom (turned over and bottom board removed). The modern version, the Bienenkiste, uses “removable fixed bars”, in other words the hive structure is normally not disturbed, but should the need arise (e.g. demand by an inspector), individual combs can be removed.

    I’m posting here not to talk about this type of hive, but to gain more information. Because “we” (I am somewhat involved in the production of content for the hive) fairly regularly get inquiries requesting information in English, I am working on preparing an English language version of the site. This requires some knowledge of the audience and local beekeeping “abroad” (e.g. in the USA).

    One question: I see that “treatment-free beekeeping” is advocated here. I am wondering about the reception of this by other beekeepers in the States. In Germany non-treatment of the varroa (the majority of beekeepers here use the ‘organics’ formic and oxalic acid) is viewed as a fairly radical idea — that and endangerment to other beekeepers. Do you have such conflicts in the States? And are you ALL really not treating for varroa?

    Another question: Almost all states require hives with “movable frames”. As I mentioned, the Bienenkiste uses a sort of top bar, with starter strips, and is not intended for removal other than for comb renewal, request from an apiary inspector, etc.). (As I mentioned, it’s a low-management type of hive. Other than opening up or closing the “honey space” there is no management of the brood space (pulling frames, etc.). So, do you see this concept (“removable fixed bars”) as being a problem in the States? The hive is intended for the weekend/urban beekeeper who is not interested in maximizing honey production and would not likely keep more than 1-3 colonies.

    Your feedback in this respect is welcome. The Bienenkiste Web site is here (still in German):

    Best wishes from Berlin,

    Kevin Pfeiffer

    Tyson Kaiser

    Hi Kevin,

    The answer to you first question is yes we have conflicts in the US about treatment free beekeeping, it’s considered a bit radical and to some irresponsible. However, the US is a big place with lots of environments and where one approach may work in one place it may not work in another. There is the other factor is the races of bees used in different areas, Italian (Ligustica) are primarily used in the southern half of the US while Carniolans are primarily used in the northern half. The latter has very poor resistance and hygienic response while Italians are being bred and selected for exactly these qualities. What this means for many of us in Southern California is we have a hybrid feral bee population that is largely made of Italian/ AHB cross, which appears to be generally very hygienic. We see hives that crash only rarely, but this is speaking only of treatment free feral-sourced bees, if you add other factors the results can be different. We tend to think it’s irresponsible to treat, as it keeps the bees from developing hygienic traits and lengthens the process of adaptation to environmental threats.

    I don’t know of any particular person that currently treats, meaning within my circle of beekeepers and backyard enthusiasts, nobody treats.

    I personally see room for importation of commercially bred Italian Hygienic genetics into the local population, and am working on a program to assess whether this is useful, but my primary goal is to never ever have to treat. Bees have thrived for a very long time and where we are they are doing fine without our interventions as well. Believe me, I’m a professional bee remover and there are bees everywhere in LA that never see treatments.

    Hope that provides some insight,

    Rob McFarland

    Hey Kevin,

    I think Michael Bush best articulates the reasons for the treatment-free approach. Here is an interview we did with him:



    Kevin Pfeiffer

    Okay, I’ll take a look at the video with Michael B. I see now better how this works for you in your specific situation.

    But for my work (having to write something about the type of hive we are using) I am really more concerned about your feedback with regard to using an undisturbed comb structure (bars that are normally not removed). I realize that it is difficult to speculate about something you’ve never seen, let alone tried, but do you see potential problems, either with inspectors or the general beekeeping community?

    Is there much interaction in CA with apiary inspectors (among hobby beekeepers)? Do you send in samples ever for American Foulbrood tests — taking a small sample of honey adjacent to brood comb? (This is possible with the Bienenkiste.) Are their beekeepers you know using skeps or other fixed-comb concepts?

    I think this all falls under the term “picking your brains” — thank you in advance, if you can offer any further insights!

    susan rudnicki

    Hi Kevin—Susan here, beek going into 3rd year, all ferals from cutouts, swarms or trap-outs, 11 hives currently. Since your Question 1 was regarding varroa treatments, I will address the epithet, ‘organics’ as in formic acid. The use of formic acid in organic honey production in the US was prohibited by the NOSB (the nat’l organics standards board) the regulatory body which codifies the term “organic” in the US. No other commercially used term for foodstuffs is regulated as this is. I.e. “natural”, as is widely used on food, is NOT a regulated term. Only recently, under pressure from big commercial concerns (which are a constant threat to the purity of the brand), Formic Acid was approved for treatment in organic honey production. I believe this is a deep disservice to the bees and their immune system health, as using this chemical, (and others) has been shown in research to disrupt gut system flora/fauna and pH in bees and, with time, tends to select for resistant pathogens and weaker bees. I insist that we must be more patient with biological genetic selection instead of finding a chemical fix to shortcut the process. Varroa only arrived a short time ago (in terms of “real time”) from populations of Apis cerana which have their own developed resistance. This is the philosophy behind the ‘no treatment’ regimen. There are a average of nine feral hives (unmanaged bees) per square mile in the Los Angeles basin, according to a survey by the Ag Commission. Certainly, those bees are not being treated, and we find in our re-homing operations, that these bees are vigorous, healthy, produce lots of honey, and have varroa. They are adapting and living with the pathogen, and that is our goal for learning to live with a invasive species.
    For your second question, about removable top bars—we are required by state code to have removable frames, though some are keeping Warre’s, top-bars, and all sorts of hybrids. We in the urban beek community have little interaction with inspectors, probably because the attention of the authorities has not tended to focus on the urban beeks, but the massive commercial pollinator operations in our state. In my city of Manhattan Beach, there is no prohibition on keeping bees, and in some other towns it is allowed specifically (Santa Monica, Redondo Beach). Since most beeks are actually keeping their backyard bees “under the radar” and do not have their hives registered with the State, most are not known. I happen to have mine registered, but it is a very low-key operation since the Department is way understaffed/budgeted and unless there is a direct complaint to its office, there is unlikely to be any oversight.
    HoneyLove has been very active in pushing for legalization of urban beekeeping in the various city jurisdictions and now, with testimony last month aimed toward the full LA City Council, we have good feelings about the success of the goal for all of Los Angeles.
    One thing that occurs to me in your description of the hive you are using and it being “a low-management type of hive” is the great difference in the activity levels at various seasons in your country. I have to watch my hives carefully, even in “winter” (it rarely falls below 45 degrees F. at night) for crowding of the brood chamber or becoming honeybound. My strong hives are producing drones almost all the time, are bringing in nectar and pollen year-round, and only stay inside when it is raining. (considering the intense drought we are in, with only 4 inches of rainfall the ENTIRE year of 2013, bees in the wild areas of the foothills and coastal scrub are in for a tough time, the forcasters are predicting the same for 2014—this is the fortunate thing for bees in the urban, irrigated landscape—forage of Southern Hemisphere and Mediterranean plants all the time) I don’t think I could just let them be unmanaged and still head off swarming. One of the major promises we make to authorities in pushing for the legalization effort is the careful prevention of swarming, as this is the issue which enrages non-beekeeping citizens. The gathering of swarms from feral hives, not importation of “bred-bees”, (package bees) is a further incentive to officials to work with us to manage the bee population that is already here and commonly exterminated as a initial response. This model saves municipalities money and drapes them in a “Green-cred” mantel many communities are currently embracing anyway.
    Now, I am a relatively new beek, so maybe your hive structure could be maintained without swarming in my climate, but it is probably speculation for you, too, to try to guess about this.
    I hope this offers you enough “brain-pickings” and “further insights” to keep up the conversation! Susan Rudnicki

    Kevin Pfeiffer

    Dear Susan,

    Many thanks for the additional information. The (undefined) meaning of “removable frames” is of course what interests me. I think that our removable fixed bars satisfy the intent of the law (comb-by-comb inspection if necessary) and I already suspected that most hobby beekeepers have relatively little contact with veterinarians, apiary inspectors, etc.

    I should add that the Bienenkiste is NOT unmanaged (e.g. like a bird house or a feral colony in the wild), but rather that the brood space is minimally managed (with the exception of the “honey room” there is no expansion or reduction of the brood space, let alone removing or re-arranging of combs). The hive is routinely inspected by the beekeeper and most of the usual activities otherwise occur (feeding for winter as necessary, addition of foundation in the honey room, honey harvest, inspection for brood, signs of disease.

    The only exception is that we encourage (well, at least “minimally discourage”) swarming, which is, after all, this superorganism’s means of reproduction. A Bienenkiste colony usually begins with a captured swarm (natural or shook). We check regularly for queen cells and try to manage the colony so that after swarms are avoided. Naturally there are those situations where the beekeeper tries to avoid any swarms (although, in all honesty I don’t know any beekeeper who has never had a swarm); for these situations we have been experimenting with splitting the colony by means of “drumming”, a technique that the old box hive beekeepers once used to transfer a colony from one hive box to another.

    So, thanks again. That helps already to give me a better sense of beekeeping today (at least in SoCal).

    Here my “greeting card webpage”, with a few pictures of my bees, etc.


    • This reply was modified 6 years, 8 months ago by Kevin Pfeiffer. Reason: typos
    susan rudnicki

    Hi, Kevin—-OK, I think I understand your management style. However, what I am practicing is called “unlimited brood nest management” which means, before the swarm impulse takes hold of a colony (signs of which are often undetected by new beeks) we note the amount of built out brood combs in proportion to honeycomb and total occupied space, (BEFORE any queen cells are drawn) and add in open frames (foundations are not used—bees draw their own combs) in between the full brood combs. These brood combs used to replace with open frames are transferred up into a new hive body, laddering up the broodnest arrangement for the queen, and reducing the sense of being crowded.
    This process has to sometimes be done even in Winter, if there is lots of laying and brood being produced—so we have to watch carefully at all seasons. As I said, the main issue with bees swarming in our urban environment is the fallout from the neighbors and municipal authorities. We simply are constrained by the hysteria that a swarm on the wing engenders in the public.

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About Kevin Pfeiffer

Former television art director (18 years in So. CA) who lives with his family and two colonies of bees in Berlin.


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