Commercial honeybees have been adversely affected by viruses, parasites, and poor nutrition. Pesticides and invasive chemical hive treatments, along with a reduction in genetic variety, have also greatly stressed the honeybees' ability to survive. However, while there is a Colony Collapse Disorder on a national level, according to the San Diego Natural History Museum, San Diego County honeybee populations appear to be stable and not declining. Most of our wild honeybees are Africanized hybrids, and appear to be genetically hardier than the commercial European honeybees; with a bit lessening of defensive behavior over time, as has happened in Brazil.
Backyard beekeepers can use a natural, sustainable, chemical-free approach to caring for bees. These organic methods are less invasive, reducing stress and encouraging strong immunity and health of bees. Using local swarms to start a colony also encourages genetic diversity and adaptation for better bee survival. Apiaries with only one to three hives will always be healthier than larger apiaries.
There is a simpler and more natural option to using conventional hives consisting of rectangular wooden boxes with removable wooden frames that hold a preformed foundation: Top-Bar Hives, which you can make or buy.
In a top-bar hive, the bees are allowed to build their wax comb from wooden top-bars, which simply rest across the top of the box that forms the hive. Bees naturally build comb in deep, catenary curves (the shape made by a rope suspended by its ends). But the use of preformed foundation inside rectangular frames of conventional hives forces bees to build comb according to human requirements, not theirs.
The most important feature of a top-bar hive is that it allows the bees to make their beeswax honeycombs in accord with their own natural systems, in a non-toxic hive environment.
Top-bar hives have been used for thousands of years. Modern top-bar hives are designed with sloping sides. The trapezoidal shape is close to the natural shape of the comb. This shaped box helps to eliminate attachment of the natural comb to the sides of the hive. Top-bar hive dimensions vary, but aim for an interior volume of at least 4,200+ cubic inches (18 gallons) and 28-30 top-bars. Less than that is too small for long-term sustainability, and the bees will eventually abscond.
Beekeeping does not have to be complicated. Top-bar beekeeping requires only one of the simple, versatile hives shown here and a sharp knife. For your own protection, wear a veil and close-fitting gloves. You can use a smoker to calm the bees when you open the hive to check on them or harvest honey. Always provide the bees with fresh water that they can access without drowning; and protect them from Argentine ants.
To get started, you can collect a swarm and put it in the hive (place a "swarm removal ad" on Craigslist) or bait the hive with a few drops of lemongrass oil to attract a swarm (between February and August in San Diego, California).
Harvesting honey is simple. Leave all the honey for the bees the first year. Then take only a few bars in late spring, leaving a surplus for winter. Take one comb at a time, cut it from the bar and replace the bar for the bees to build more comb. Cut up the honeycomb and store in sealed containers.
However, if you aren't interested in robbing your bees of honey, and simply want to provide them a natural home akin to the inside of a log, then you'll never have to look inside the hive again. And the long-term benefit is available from the pollination services the bees provide. The bees will follow their own natural rhythms and potentially can live for many decades without human interference inside the hive.