I just finished listening to episode 161 (March updates from the homestead). I really enjoy these podcasts - much like the other feedback Jason's been getting. It's always nice to hear from others who are doing similar things, their plans and triumphs help me refine my own actions, and their failures make me feel a little better about the many failures I too experience regularly.
I wanted to address your remark about the sustainability of bees though. Initially I was going to send an email, but decided that the forum may be cool for getting other discussion on my thoughts as well.
Full disclosure - we currently have a single hive that overwintered last year. We had started a second hive last spring, but had an 11 day period of rain. We didn't provide supplemental feed to our new hive, and it starved - so I'm certainly no expert... but we're learning. We have 2 more nucs ordered, and will be picking them up in a couple months.
I can certainly understand the frustration many people have about bees. While there are many rules of thumb out there - there aren't too many facts. Bees are one of the more feral of the creatures we like to think of as homestead critters.
Sometimes this has benefits - in the most laid-back approach you really just provide a shelter, and hope that they do ok... sometimes you're rewarded for your patience with honey, and a thriving colony. On t he other hand there are some times where your hive will abscond, or starve, or swarm - and there's nothing you can do about it. At the course I took they used to joke that "You ask 3 beekeepers a question, and you'll get 5 separate answers."
That being said - I recently attended a seminar about queen rearing - and while I'm nowhere near confident or knowledgeable enough to attempt this sort of thing yet - it kind of helped me put out my roadmap for 'sustainable bees' - at least on our homestead.
We live on 4 acres - and a while back had decided that we were going to have a maximum of 4 hives. This will help us get through the 50% winter mortality that's been reported for the last couple years in our area, but won't be so much that they're difficult to keep track of - or take up an entire day to inspect. We likely won't be up to the 4 hives at the end of next year at the earliest - at which point we'll have 3 years of bee management under our belts. We've been advised at another seminar to not keep the hives too close together, so we'll likely spread the four of them out a bit - although not so far as to make managing them a headache.
I've realized that it's easier to not think of bees as perennials - they're not like a tree that requires planting and care over the first year or two, but ultimately needs nothing but a harvest and a prune from time to time. Neither are they annuals though - absconding our dying every year to be replaced the next. Still - the comparison helps me out. Talking with other beekeepers it is normal to lose some of your hives each year. A number of our local ones just order new packages - but that doesn't strike me as overly sustainable either.
My plan is to get our 4 hives going, and then as colonies abscond, winter-starve or die in other ways I will replace them with a queen from another of my own hives. This will have an effect much like seed saving... even though my queens may be fertilized by wild or other domesticated drones, over the years I'll be setting up my colonies with proven local survivor bees, and ones who are uniquely suited to our area, and even my management style.
To me this is still sustainable. It's certainly not a zero management approach - but despite our efforts towards that there is very little that we do that's completely zero management. Paddocks need to be shifted, gardens need to be mulched, fences need to be repaired... and it seems to me that this is no worse than many other livestock chores. There are no new inputs required, equipment can be re-used, queens are being raised in-house, and the bees are foraging their food, and just as important - there is no additional yearly cash outlay.
I'd love to eventually go to a foundation-less system, and really push to get my bees back to a more natural existence - but like everything we do at our homestead it has to be done in stages - and right now the big effort will be to have our 4 hives by the end of next year, and to be rearing queens as needed starting the spring following.
I'd appreciate your thoughts on this Jason - if this at all addresses your concerns about the sustainability of beekeeping, and would love feedback from anyone else who's tried this type of approach, or even just kept bees longer than I have and has their own ideas.