"...keeping bees can be simpler than growing tomatoes...".
“…keeping bees can be simpler than growing tomatoes…”.
By Dean Houghton
Make no mistake about it, Dr. Leonid Sharashkin is a scholar and a scientist. Born in Russia, he received a master’s degree in natural resources from Indiana University as well as a doctorate in forestry from the University of Missouri. He is the author of world-renowned research in sustainable agriculture, with his studies cited in testimony to the U.S. Congress and used in drafting forestry legislation in the European Union.
So you might be taken aback when Sharashkin—known by just about everyone in beekeeping circles as “Dr. Leo”—starts quoting Winnie-the-Pooh. But when you think about it, the Pooh bear was quite the expert on “hunny,” spending the majority of his time wandering through the mystical Hundred-Acre Wood in search of the delicacy.
Dr. Leo has his own magical 80 acres of Ozark forestland that serves as a homestead for he and his wife, Irina, and their family; daughters Lada, Vereya, and Zaryana, along with their son, Yarosvet. Dr. Leo “retired” from his life as a researcher in 2008; the word is in quotes because his current workload keeps him as busy as a bee.
Bee friendly. Dr. Leo depends entirely on bees to support his growing family; their Ozark homestead is devoted to natural beekeeping methods, housing bees in a structure called a horizontal hive. The industrial style of beekeeping common in America calls for a vertical approach, stacking “supers” that may eventually contain 70 pounds of honey; that’s a lot of heavy lifting for a homesteader. “It’s not good for your back, or for your joints,” Dr. Leo points out. “And it’s disruptive to the bees, as it disturbs the integrity of their home.”
He prefers a method of keeping bees that involves a step back in time. Dr. Leo’s apiary features a half-dozen styles of horizontal hives, easy to build and low-maintenance structures that trace their origins to a French beekeeper, Georges de Layens, who introduced the idea in 1864.
The natural approach to beekeeping is defined by what it is not; the bees are never fed sugar, there is no changing of the size of the nest with brood boxes and supers, no use of drugs or chemicals of any kind, no queen excluders or re-queening. “Until about a hundred years ago, all beekeepers used the natural approach,” Dr. Leo says. “There had been no chemicals used for a thousand years as humans cared for their bees.”
Dr. Leo’s mentor in this approach is Fedor Lazutin, a noted Russian natural beekeeper and author of Keeping Bees With a Smile: A Vision and Practice of Natural Apiculture. Fedor brought back millennia-old tradition where the keeper’s primary tasks were limited to providing bees with an ideal habitat, and harvesting surplus honey once per year.
Lazutin taught a series of classes on natural beekeeping in the U.S. during a 2014 visit. “People have a hard time believing it could be so simple,” he says. “The ingrained stereotype paints beekeeping as a labor-intensive, day-in and day-out chore that is all but incompatible with any other activity. Beekeeping is portrayed as an extremely complex profession, one that requires years of training.”
Dr. Leo is determined to rewrite that image of beekeeping as a form of drudgery. “Following these methods, keeping bees can be simpler than growing tomatoes,” he asserts. “But that’s not the experience that you hear people describe at beginning beekeeping classes. They buy equipment and protective gear, order bee packages, install them in the hives, treat against parasites and diseases, feed the bees in the fall. And then the bees do not survive the first winter, so the cycle repeats itself.”
Even the most experienced beekeepers sometimes just give up. There are only half as many bee colonies in the U.S. today as there were in 1940.
New approach. That’s why Dr. Leo believes a number of people are looking to rediscover a simpler form of beekeeping. “There are ways to avoid many of the chores and complexities we’ve been taught to take for granted,” he says.
The hive design itself is a key; a Layens hive typically contains 20 large (13 inch by 16 inch) frames on one level; the number of frames can be fewer or greater depending on the local honey flow. “The frame’s shape and large size promote good wintering and strong spring buildup,” Dr. Leo says.
These horizontal hives keep all the frames at the same level, allowing the backyard beekeeper to add or remove frames with a minimal amount of disturbance to the bees, keeping them calm and easy to work with; as a bonus, Dr. Leo points out, “there are no heavy supers to lift, ever.”
Horizontal hives are loaded with additional frames during the spring inspection, then opened in the fall for honey harvest. That’s a considerably different approach than today’s common advice to look into hives every two weeks. But Dr. Leo points out that a prominent French beekeeper, Jean Hurpin, modifies some of his Layens hives to enable him to manage the bees with only one visit a year. “Harvesting honey becomes my sole task,” Hurpin says.
Reaching out. Dr. Leo is in high demand as a speaker, having made hundreds of presentations, from Maui to Minneapolis to Moscow, on four continents. He hosts workshops at his apiary in the Ozarks as well as other locations, sharing knowledge about natural beekeeping as well as hands-on woodworking tips on how to construct horizontal hives and swarm traps. He served as the English edition editor for both the Keeping Bees with a Smile book as well as Georges de Layens’ Keeping Bees in Horizontal Hives: A Complete Guide to Apiculture.
Those books can be ordered by visiting Dr. Leo’s website, HorizontalHive.com. That website offers a treasure trove of information about natural beekeeping, including free hive plans.
Ozark lifestyle. Most of all, Dr. Leo and his family are devoted to earth-friendly living in the Ozark Mountains. He manages approximately 40 hives, all of which are composed of survivor stock obtained by catching wild swarms. “It really helps to start with local bees that are adapted to your local conditions,” he says. “If you buy a package of bees commercially, they may do well during the summer months, but not fare well during the winter.”
He only propagates bees by swarming, never feeds them sugar, never treats them with any chemicals, and otherwise follows the natural beekeeping principles described in Keeping Bees With a Smile. “Our major nectar source is sumac,” Dr. Leo says. “It produces an awesome honey with orangey flavor and lemon zest overtones, and gives a tingling wintergreen sensation to your tongue.”
But this homestead in the Ozarks is more than a place to keep bees and produce honey. It’s a place for the Sharashkin family to develop their own roots.
Dr. Leo and Irina met in Moscow while attending a prestigious business school; they tried farming on a small acreage in Russia, but found it too restrictive. The Ozarks, a place that Dr. Leo became familiar with during his work at the University of Missouri, offered room to grow. He assisted in the homebirth of the children, and they are being homeschooled in the Russian language, as a way to connect to their family origins. “We have adopted the Ozarks as our second home,” Dr. Leo says.
And what a homestead it is. Kids play along a flowing stream, surrounded by acres of forest that would be a perfect fit for Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends. Dr. Leo admits that reading Winnie-the-Pooh is a favorite pastime, along with star gazing and watching honey bees at work.
It’s part of being in tune with nature. “De Layens wrote that ‘we cannot improve beekeeping by going farther and farther away from the bee’s natural tendencies,’” Dr. Leo says. “I fully agree.”