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Restoring the Balance in Beekeeping
Honeybees cannot be domesticated in the way that cows, pigs or sheep have been. Man has not essentially changed them, despite many attempts to breed them to suit our needs. Their unique mating behavior and reproductive cycle ensure that diversity and adaptability will continue to be dominant themes in their evolution.
As I see it, our main job as beekeepers – or beekeepers, or beekeepers – is to be attentive and to understand our bees as best we can. We cannot fully enter their world, but we have the opportunity to better appreciate it. And once we begin to understand how deeply embedded they are in the natural world and what sensitive indicators they are of disturbances in the natural world, we may not be able to imagine a functioning planet without them.
So, before you jump headlong into beekeeping, I’d encourage you to take a deep breath and think about what it is about them that really interests you, as this will give you some important information on how best to proceed. An hour or two of careful consideration at this stage could save you weeks or months of time, trouble and money.
To help you decide where you are on the ‘beekeeping spectrum’, I’ve identified six types of beekeeping, three of which fall on the ‘conventional’ side and three on the ‘natural’ side:
- Honey cultivation: production-oriented, intensive management of bees for maximum honey yield or for migratory pollination. It usually involves routine sugar feeding and prophylactic medications, including antibiotics and miticides. Queens are usually reared by artificial insemination and are often replaced, while drones are controlled and swarming is prevented by cutting queens or breaking up colonies. It usually involves some movement of hives, sometimes over long distances. This is a business run for profit, but like other farming businesses, there will be good years and bad years.
- Secondary beekeeping: a smaller, casual version of honey farming. The main goal is profit, but your livelihood may not depend entirely on it.
- Beekeeping Association: a miniature version of commercial or secondary beekeeping, as promoted and taught by most beekeeping associations. Usually the intention is still to produce the maximum amount of honey, but from fewer hives and not necessarily for financial reward. Queens are often marked and clipped, and in most other respects the methods are similar to those of the honey grower.
- Balanced beekeeping: the emphasis is on the welfare of bees and enabling the natural behavior of bees, with the intention of creating conditions in which bees can find their own solutions. Restrained intake of honey and other bee products only in abundant and appropriate cases. Beekeepers may or may not use anti-mite treatments or medications, but if they do, they use non-toxic, natural substances that support bee health rather than targeting specific disorders. Queens are open, separation is optional and swarming may or may not be managed.
- Natural beekeeping: similar to ‘balanced beekeeping’, with an emphasis on ‘doing nothing’ approaches. Little or no management is attempted, and separations or queen rearing are rarely carried out beyond what the bees themselves do. Hives are rarely opened; routine inspections are not recommended; honey is rarely taken; other hive products hardly at all.
- Protective beekeeping: bees for their own sake; without taking honey and without examination, treatment or feeding. Bees do what they want and take risks with time and forage. Bee-friendly plants can be included in a conservation scheme, which may include other pollinator species.
While I have presented them as distinct categories, they should really be considered segments of a continuous spectrum, from most to least invasive and from most to least ‘production focused’. It is also possible – at least in theory – for a honey producer to run apiaries according to ‘Darwinian’ principles – drug-free and relying on surviving stocks – thus closing the circle.
You may notice that I haven’t mentioned any specific types of hives in the list above. While it is true that certain designs are more suitable for specific applications, it is possible to be a ‘balanced beekeeper’ using a conventional frame hive, and in France there are honey farmers who use Warré hives – a vertical variant of the top-bar hive, which is intended for honey production.
It would also be perfectly possible to be a ‘nuisance’ beekeeper in a top hive, so I don’t think it’s useful to categorize beekeepers solely by the shape of their hives or even their personality traits: it’s their intent and attitude towards their bees that matters.
The origin of ‘natural beekeeping’
Some of you who have read my books and are familiar with my methods may be wondering why I seem to be creating the category of beekeeping – apparently out of thin air – just as we are used to using the term ‘natural beekeeping’. Where does this ‘balanced beekeeping’ come from?
The term ‘natural beekeeping’ was first (as far as I know) openly discussed at a meeting of a dozen interested people at the Bees for Development offices in Monmouth in 2009. We were trying to find a generic term for what we were all trying – in slightly different ways – to achieve and they differed from the conventional methods widely taught in the UK and elsewhere. While we recognized the paradox embedded in the term, we also felt it stimulated discussion and drew attention to the distinctions we wanted to make.
Ever since that meeting, there has been a debate about what ‘natural beekeeping’ actually means – given that no beekeeping is completely natural – and how natural we should be and what is unnatural about conventional methods. This conversation created further differences and it became clear to me that some ‘natural’ beekeepers have fallen – at least provisionally – on the ‘no intervention’ side of the fence, preferring to observe the bees and keep them in containers that are not meant to be opened very often – or at all, in in some cases – while others want to keep bees in a way that still allows for some measure of swarm control, compliance with inspection requirements and the ability to remove some of the honey when it is abundant.
In short, ‘natural beekeeping’ seems to have moved towards the ‘conservation’ end of the spectrum and created a gap between itself and the ‘amateur beekeeping’ promoted by conventional beekeeping associations. This is the void in which, I suggest, “balanced beekeeping” sits happily.
Balanced beekeeping: bridging the gap
Balanced beekeeping, therefore, allows for the use of a wide range of equipment and methods, and favors the ‘natural’ over the conventional. It is aimed at people who want to do more than just watch bees: they want to be ‘keepers’ of bees, not just ‘have’ bees; they want a more intimate relationship with their bees than is allowed by never opening the hive – while realizing that this should always be done carefully and not too often. They want to keep healthy bees without resorting to medication, but are also happy to have a bee inspector call occasionally to check on their residents for signs of illness. If the hive becomes ill-tempered and starts to bother the neighbors, they are ready and able to replace the queen if necessary or move the hive to another location. When the combs turn black with age and propolis, they can be easily removed. If the hive becomes honey bound, they can fix the problem. They know how to raise a few extra queens – if necessary – and can tell when the colony needs extra feeding and can provide it: they recognize that beekeeping is both a science and an art, and they constantly strive to improve their skills.
So the balance point is somewhere between doing too much and doing nothing; excessive control and letting nature take its course; to be a beekeeper and bee keeper.
I would suggest that the three principles I stated in Barefoot beekeeper fully apply to this sector and there is still no need for a ‘rule book’ – everyone can decide for themselves where the balance is.
Balanced beekeeping means working with the natural incentives and habits of the bees, respecting the integrity of the brood, leaving them enough honey supplies during the winter and generally organizing things so that their bees cause as little stress and disturbance as possible, while being ready and able to intervene when the bees need help or when their activities disturb others.
Compared to more ‘honey-focused’ approaches, more time is spent observing the bees, and some operations may need to be performed a little more frequently: honey harvesting, for example, is likely to be done by taking smaller quantities over a period of weeks or months, instead of the typical all-at-once, smash-and-grab attack practiced by honey farmers and most hobbyists.
Our goal is not to extract every possible drop of honey from the hive. We respect the bees’ need to eat their own supplies – especially over the winter – and consider sugar syrup an inferior supplement to be given only when the bees lack their own food, due to prolonged bad weather or other causes.
Support for other species
Our natural allies are gardeners, smallholders, and especially those who understand and use the principles of permaculture, which are also the principles of nature. A mutually beneficial and sustainable relationship with our bees must be based on such a truly holistic approach: we must learn more about how the colony functions as a whole, living being and the many ways in which it interacts with its environment, with us and with other living beings. For too long we have been locked into an unbalanced, old-fashioned, reductionist approach, treating bees as mere machines created solely for our benefit, rather than the highly evolved, wild creatures we are privileged to work with.
I believe that beekeeping for honey should be small, local and carried out in a spirit of respect for bees and appreciation of the vital role they play in our agriculture and in the natural world. I do not condone large scale commercial beekeeping as it inevitably leads to a ‘factory farming’ mentality in the way bees are treated, treated and robbed. I believe that we should perceive honey less as food and more as medicine, and adjust our consumption accordingly. We shouldn’t expect to see supermarket shelves overflowing with jars of honey from around the world, as if it were jam or peanut butter. Honey should be appreciated as the product of countless bee miles and the assimilation of priceless nectar from countless flowers.
An important aspect of ‘balance’ is to ensure that our activities as beekeepers do not have a negative impact on other species. Honey bees have evolved to live in colonies distributed across the land according to the availability of food and shelter. Forcing 20, 50, 100 or more colonies to share a territory that – at most – half a dozen would naturally occupy is bound to lead to a concentration of disease and parasites. Unnaturally high concentrations of honey bees can also threaten forage and thus the very existence of other important insect pollinators, such as bumblebees, mason bees and many other species that benefit wild and cultivated plants. This means we don’t overdo any site and create habitat for other species, which can be in the form of ‘bee hotels’ or simply piles of old wood and leaves. Anything done to improve the environment for honeybees will also benefit other pollinators.
A deep appreciation of the interconnectedness of all living things and an understanding of the impact our own species has had and still has, inevitably leads us to the conclusion that we have a responsibility to everything that walks, crawls or slithers on the earth. or under it, or that swims in the sea or flies in the air, and shares this precious planet with us. As beekeepers, we have a special responsibility to be ‘guardians of the earth’.
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