Our first encounters with honeybees were long ago, most likely in Africa. Someone discovered – probably simultaneously – that these tree-dwelling insects produced a sweet, sticky substance unlike any other, and that they had stings in their tails.
When fire became portable, someone else discovered that smoke caused bees to become more amenable to robbing.
Some time later, a more settled tribe found that they could house bees in baskets or pots, which saved them the trouble of climbing trees to get the honey, and the craft of beekeeping was born. Pots, baskets and logs continued in use for many centuries, and while proficient beekeepers would have understood a good deal of the behaviour of their charges, the inner secrets of the hive remained closed from observers until the end of the 18th century, when a blind Swiss by the name of François Huber found them out through the medium of his faithful – and sighted – servant, Burnens. Huber’s New Observations on the Natural History of Bees remains a classic to this day.
Some 30 years later, Jan Dzieraon developed Huber’s experimental hive further to create the first truly practical, movable-frame beehive, and shortly afterwards in 1852, Rev. Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth publicized and patented his own version. Such was his talent for publicity and marketing that the ‘Langstroth’ became and remains the standard hive in the USA and the model upon which most other variants are based.
However, this type of hive is expensive to buy, very difficult for amateur woodworkers to build – due to the precise dimensions and many small parts needed for frames – requires constant maintenance, causes great disturbance to the lives of bees, and is heavy and cumbersome in use. Many women, especially, have been put off beekeeping by the weight-lifting needed to harvest honey from a Langstroth-type hive, and hernias are commonplace among commercial beekeepers.
In Nepal, honey-hunting is still practised by men descending cliffs on ropes and using long poles to dislodge chunks of comb. Elsewhere, bees are kept in skeps, baskets, pots, cavities in walls and other containers devised from local materials and – we can deduce from their longevity – more-or-less suitable both for bees and for their keepers. In Africa, probably the original home of the honeybee, the top bar hive was developed as an ‘intermediate technology’ solution, capable of being constructed using local skills and materials and being, in essence, a beekeeper-friendly hollow log, having the advantages of movable combs but without the need for machine-made parts.
Whatever the accommodation we offer them, our meetings with bees have always been a process of negotiation, albeit somewhat one-sided. We can protect ourselves from them, but they ultimately have no protection from us. The encroachment of chemical agriculture, deforestation and urbanization have reduced their natural habitat, while toxic cocktails of insecticides have poisoned their flowers.
The honeybee has come to be seen as the ‘canary in the coal mine’ of our civilization and she is showing early warning signs of her imminent demise, to which we must pay urgent attention.
Our challenge now is to re-negotiate our relationship with bees: we must learn to protect and nurture them, rather than simply exploit them, and we need to learn to listen to what they need from us. The process of discovering how we can most effectively do that is the project that myself and others have set ourselves, and we hope that many more will join us and carry this work forward.
We acknowledge the paradox inherent in the phrase ‘natural beekeeping’: as soon as we consider ‘keeping’ bees, we begin to stray from what is truly ‘natural’. In nature, only bees keep bees.
To be considered ‘natural’, our beekeeping practice must take into account:
- the natural impulses and behaviour of bees, including – foraging, swarming, storing food and defending their nest
- how hive design affects bees
- the suitability of materials used in hive construction, including considerations of sustainability
- the nature and frequency of our interventions
- the impact of a localized increase in honeybee population on other species of pollinators
- the balance between honey harvesting and the bees’ own needs
- the nature of any added inputs – medications, feeding
We are engaged in a process of working towards the ultimately unattainable notion of completely ‘natural’ beekeeping, while acknowledging that the bees will go their own way regardless of our wishes. Our relationship with them is that of facilitator or minder rather than ‘keeper’. We could say that the role of the natural beekeeper is to enable our bees to attain the fullest possible expression of their bee-ness while in our care.
Our overall goal in natural beekeeping is to achieve a state of sustainability: balancing inputs and outputs such that our activities enhance rather than damage the health of our bees, other species and the planet.
To be truly sustainable, a system must be as close to carbon-neutral as it can be, requiring no synthetic inputs and having no detrimental impact on the natural environment. So if we are to continue to have a relationship with honeybees, we have to consider what impact current beekeeping practices have and how our ‘natural’ approach seeks to improve on this state of affairs.
A typical commercial beekeeping operation is a real energy hog. Lumber – which may or may not come from sustainable sources – is sliced and milled by powered machinery prior to assembly into hive boxes, which are transported by road, sea or rail to be further distributed by road to their apiary sites. Regular visits by beekeepers require oil-derived fuel, and more is needed to fire the boilers to heat the considerable quantities of water needed for sterilizing woodwork and washing down de-cappers, extractors, tanks and floors. More power is needed to retrieve the crop, to extract it and to mix and distribute the sugar syrup needed for the bees’ survival following the removal of their stores. Honey must then be filtered, bottled and distributed to wholesalers and thence to retail outlets. Meanwhile, beeswax is recovered by means of steam or boiling water, cleaned and filtered and sent off to be re-melted and turned into sheets of foundation, which are then sold back to the beekeepers for insertion into frames for next season.
Migratory beekeepers in the USA truck hives by the thousands clear across the country for the almond pollination, while in the UK this type of activity is nowadays largely restricted to taking hives up to the moors in August for the heather crop, and some orchard pollination work.
Due to what might be called the Langstroth hegemony, this whole scenario is also enacted in miniature by amateur beekeepers, who largely mimic the activities of their commercial brethren. They may only have a few hives at the bottom of their gardens, but in most cases they have not considered any alternative to the expensive, energy-hungry equipment available from the glossy catalogues of the beekeepers’ suppliers.
We know that bees need nothing much more than a dry, ventilated cavity in which to build their nest. Instead, ‘modern’ beekeepers insist on supplying them with a box full of wooden frames, in which are mounted sheets of wax, helpfully imprinted with oversized ‘worker-bee’ hexagonal cell bases. A newly-hived swarm of bees must be surprised indeed to find so much done for them: ready-made comb bases hung in neat rows, with spaces all around them for access – what a boon for a busy colony!
But what may at first sight appear to be a great convenience, also has some significant drawbacks. All these imprinted cells are the same size, yet anyone who has observed natural comb knows that cell sizes vary considerably, and not just between workers and drones: worker cells themselves vary in diameter according to rules only bees are aware of. All those dead-straight frames may look neat, but bees don’t build dead-straight comb – they like a gentle curve here and there. And if you watch bees building natural comb in an unrestricted space, they hang in chains, legs linked, as if laying out the dimensions of the comb in space as they work above their own heads – something they cannot do on foundation.
So a good deal of so-called ‘modern’ beekeeping – in fact, virtually unchanged since the mid-19th century – is unsustainable from our point of view, as well as being a nuisance to bees. In terms of honey yield, it is clearly an improvement on logs and skeps, but in terms of bee health and energy efficiency, it has turned out to be a disaster.
The job of the natural beekeeper is to find ways of interacting with bees that are truly sustainable, both for the bees themselves and for the planet.
In The Barefoot Beekeeper, I proposed the following three, simple principles for the ‘natural’ beekeeper to consider:
- Interference in the natural lives of the bees is kept to a minimum.
- Nothing is put into the hive that is known to be, or likely to be harmful either to the bees, to us or to the wider environment and nothing is taken out that the bees cannot afford to lose.
- The bees know what they are doing: our job is to listen to them and provide the optimum conditions for their well-being, both inside and outside the hive.
These principles seem to me to form a solid foundation for our thinking about how we approach bees and beekeeping. As soon as we step beyond those basic principles and attempt further to define the parameters, we find ourselves in danger of beginning to create a ‘book of rules’. And it doesn’t take much looking around the world today to see how divisive and destructive other ‘books of rules’ have been.
‘Natural’, ‘balanced’ or ‘sustainable’ beekeeping – whatever name we give it – is a process, not a destination. We have to remain flexible and always be on the lookout for ways to improve our techniques, so everything in this book is offered in this spirit: indications of what seems to work, always with the possibility that there are even better ways yet to be discovered, or – more likely – re-discovered, as there is really nothing new in beekeeping.
Historically, we began our relationship with bees when somebody discovered that the taste of honey was worth the pain it cost to harvest. We became honey-hunters, and while there were few of us and many of them, this was sustainable.
When somebody discovered that it was possible to offer shelter to honeybees while they made their honey, and then kill them off to raid their stores, we became bee keepers, and while there were few bee keepers and many honeybees, that too was sustainable.
Then someone invented a way to house bees that did not require them to be killed, but instead allowed people to manage and control them to some extent, arranging things so as to trick them into producing more honey for their masters than for themselves, and we became bee farmers. And that was sustainable for a while because there were still many of them and although there were also many of us, we could manipulate their reproduction so as to make more of them as we needed.
Now it has become clear that we have gone too far, for bees have begun to suffer from diseases that were virtually unknown in the old days, and they have to be given medicines in order to keep them alive. And because a whole industry has grown up around the farming of these bees, and there is a lot of money at stake, beekeepers have been slow to change their ways and many could not do so for fear of bankruptcy, and so the health of the honeybees has become worse and they are subject to parasites and viruses that never troubled them in the past.
Meanwhile, we forgot how to grow food in the way that we once had done because we were no longer inclined to labour in the fields, and instead devised clever ways to make the soil support more crops. We poured fertilizers onto our fields and killed off inconvenient creatures with ‘pesticides’ – defining a whole class of living organisms as our enemies and therefore dispensable. This was never sustainable, and never can be.
And that is where we find ourselves today, and this is the problem we face: bees have become weakened through exploitation and a toxic agricultural system, allied to the impossible expectation of continuous economic growth.
As ‘natural beekeepers’, our most pressing work is to restore bees to their original, healthy state. We think of ourselves as ‘keepers’ in the sense of ‘nurturing and supporting’ rather than ‘enslaving’. We must seek to protect and conserve the honeybee by working within their natural capacity, not constantly urging them towards ever greater production. We must challenge the whole agricultural and economic system that has caused us to arrive at this point, because without change at that level, the future for both us and the bees is bleak.
We can make a start by re-establishing more natural, non-violent ways of working with bees: neither we nor they have any need of routine or prophylactic ‘treatments’ with synthetic antibiotics, fungicides or miticides. We don’t need to operate ‘honey factories’ – we can content ourselves with providing accommodation for bees in return for whatever they can afford to give us. In some years, this may be nothing at all, while in others there may be an abundant harvest.
Such is nature: bees depend on honey for their survival; we do not.
If the price of returning bees to a state of natural, robust health is a little less honey on our toast, is it not a worthwhile sacrifice?