What is Natural Beekeeping?
Our first encounters in honeybees occurred long ago, most likely in Africa. Someone discovered, probably simultaneously, that these tree-dwelling insects produced an unusual sweet, sticky substance and that their tails had stings. Someone else discovered that smoke made bees more tolerant to robbing when fire was portable. A settled tribe discovered that bees could be housed in pots or baskets. This saved them the effort of climbing trees to collect honey. The craft of beekeeping was then born.
A bit of History…
Logs, pots, and baskets were still in use for centuries. While skilled beekeepers could have understood much of the behavior of their charges, the inner workings of the hive were kept secret from outside observers until the 18th century when Francois Huber, a blind Swissman, discovered them through the eyes of Burnens, his faithful and sighted servant.
Huber’s New observations on the natural history of bees is still a classic. Jan Dzieraon, who developed Huber’s experiment hive further, created the first practical, movable frame beehive. Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth patented and publicized his own version. His marketing and publicity skills were so impressive that the ‘Langstroth hive became the standard in the USA. It is also the model on which all other variations are based.
Honey Hunting to Honey Harvesting
This hive is costly to buy and difficult to build by amateur woodworkers. It also requires constant maintenance, is very disruptive to the bees’ lives, and is heavy and cumbersome to use. Many beekeepers have lost interest in honeykeeping, particularly women. Commercial beekeepers use hernias to extract honey from Langstroth-type beehives. Honey-hunting in Nepal is still done by men using long poles and climbing down cliffs on ropes. Other places have bees kept in skeps or baskets, holes in walls, and other containers made from local materials. This is because they are more suitable for the bees as well as their keepers.
The top bar hive, which was probably developed in Africa, is an ‘intermediate tech’ solution. It can be constructed using local skills and materials. It is essentially a beekeeper-friendly hollow log with the benefits of movable honeycombs, but no need to use machine-made parts. No matter what accommodation we offer them they will always be able to negotiate. We can protect them from us, but they have no protection from you.
The Canary within the Coal Mine
Their natural habitat has been reduced by chemical agriculture, deforestation, and urbanization, as well as toxic insecticides that have poisoned their flowers.
The honeybee is now seen as the ‘canary within the coal mine’ of modern civilization. She is showing early warning signs that she is on the verge of her impending death, which we need to pay close attention to.
Now is the time to re-negotiate how we relate to bees. We must learn to care for and nurture them rather than just exploit them. And we must learn to listen to their needs. We have set ourselves the task of figuring out how to do this best. We hope others will join us in this endeavor.
Commercial Beekeeping vs Natural Honeykeeping
We recognize the paradox in the term “natural beekeeping”: once we start to consider keeping bees, we start to stray away from what is truly natural. Only bees can keep bees in nature. While we are working towards the ultimate goal of natural beekeeping, we also recognize that the bees will do what is best for them. We are more of a facilitator or minder than a ‘keeper’ relationship with them.
The role of the natural honeykeeper is to allow our bees to express their full bee-ness while they are under our care. Our ultimate goal in natural honeykeeping is to achieve sustainability. This means that we balance inputs and outputs so that our activities do not harm the health of other species, bees, and the planet. It is a Non-Violent Beekeeping. A system that must be carbon-neutral, meaning it does not require synthetic inputs and has no adverse impact on the natural environment.
If we want to maintain a relationship with honeybees we need to look at the impact of current beekeeping practices and what our natural approach can do to improve this situation. A typical commercial beekeeping operation can be a serious energy hog. The lumber, which may or not be sustainable, is cut and ground by powered machinery before being assembled into hive boxes. These boxes are then transported by road, rail, or sea to their apiary locations.
Regular beekeeper visits require oil-derived fuel. To heat the large quantities of water required for sterilizing woodwork, washing down extractors, de-cappers, tanks, and floors, more power is needed to fire boilers. It takes more power to extract the crop, mix it and distribute the sugar syrup that is necessary for bee survival after the stores are removed.
The honey must be filtered, bottled, and then distributed to wholesalers. The beeswax can then be extracted using steam or boiling water. It is then re-melted and made into foundation sheets which are then sent back to beekeepers to be inserted into frames for the next season.
The USA’s migratory beekeepers transport hives by the hundreds across the country to pollinate almonds. In the UK, this activity is limited to placing hives on the moors in August to pollinate heather crops and some orchard work. This whole scenario is also replicated in miniature by amateur beekeepers who often mimic the commercial counterparts. Although they may have a few beehives in their gardens, most of them have no other options than the expensive, energy-hungry equipment found in the glossy catalogs of their suppliers.
We know that bees only need a dry, ventilated place to build their nest. Modern beekeepers insist that they provide them with a box of wooden frames in which are mounted sheets wax. These sheets are imprinted with hexagonal cell bases for worker-bees. The bees in a newly-hived swarm will be amazed to find so many things done for them. Ready-made comb bases are hung in neat rows with access spaces around them.
Although it may seem like a great convenience, there are some serious drawbacks to this system. Although all imprinted cells are the exact same size, anyone who has seen natural comb will know that cell sizes can vary greatly between workers and drones. Bees also know that worker cells have different diameters. Although they may appear neat, bees do not like straight lines. They prefer a gentle curve here or there. You can see bees creating natural comb in unrestricted spaces. They hang in chains with their legs connected, as if they are laying out the dimensions of the desired comb as they work. This is something they can’t do on foundation. A lot of modern beekeeping, which is essentially unchanged since the mid-19th Century, is not sustainable from our perspective and is a nuisance to bees. It is clear that it improves honey yield over logs and skeps. But it is a disaster for bee health, energy efficiency, and bee health.
Principles of Natural Beekeeping
The natural beekeeper’s job is to find sustainable ways to interact with bees, for both the planet and the bees.
1. The bees’ natural lives are respected and interfered with as little as possible.
2. The hive is not allowed to contain anything that is likely to be, or is known to be, harmful to the bees or the wider environment. Nothing is taken out that would be detrimental to the bees or the wider environment.
3. The bees are smart and know what they are doing. Our job is to listen and provide the best conditions for their well-being inside and outside the hive.
These principles provide a solid foundation for how we approach beekeeping. If we go beyond these basic principles and try to define the parameters further, we run the risk of creating a ‘book full of rules’. It doesn’t take long to see how destructive and divisive other ‘books’ of rules have been.
The Process of Sustainable Beekeeping
Natural, balanced, or sustainable beekeeping, whatever its name, is a process and not a destination. We must be flexible and constantly look for ways to improve our techniques. This book offers suggestions of what works, but also hints at possible new ways. Our relationship with bees began when someone discovered that honey was worth the pain of harvesting. We became honey-hunters and, while there were not many of us, it was sustainable.
It was possible to provide shelter for honeybees while they were making their honey and then kill them off to raid their shops. This was how we became bee keepers. While there were not many bee keepers, there were many honeybees. Someone invented a way to house honeybees that didn’t require them to die, but allowed people to manage and control them, and arrange things so they produce more honey for their masters. This led to us becoming bee farmers.
This was sustainable for a while, as there were still many bees and even though there were many of us, we could manipulate their reproduction to make as many as we wanted.
Our Most Important Task as Natural Beekeepers
It is now clear that we have gone too far. Bees are now suffering from diseases that were almost unknown in the past. They need to be treated with medicines to keep them healthy. Because beekeeping has become a huge industry and there is a lot at stake, beekeepers are slow to change and many cannot do so out of fear of bankruptcy. The result is that honeybees are now more susceptible to viruses and parasites than ever before.
We forgot how to grow food the way we used to. Because we weren’t inclined to work in the fields, we devised clever ways of making the soil more productive. We dumped fertilizers on our fields and killed any inconvenient animals with pesticides. This made a whole new class of living organisms our enemies and dispensable. This was not sustainable and it will never be.
This is where we are today. Bees have been weakened by exploitation and a toxic agriculture system, combined with the unattainable expectation of continued economic growth. Our most important task as ‘natural beekeepers is to return bees back to their healthy, original state. We see ourselves as ‘keepers’ when we ‘nurture and support’ rather than enslaving bees.
We must work within the honeybee’s natural capacities and not push them to greater production. We must challenge the entire agricultural and economic system that brought us to this point. Without change at that level, both our future and that of the honeybees are bleak. We can start by reestablishing natural, non-violent ways to work with bees. Neither we nor the bees need routine or prophylactic treatments with synthetic antibiotics, pesticides or miticides. We don’t have to run ‘honey factories’. We can provide accommodation for bees in exchange for what they can afford. This may not be enough in some years, but it may be sufficient in others.
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