What is ‘natural beekeeping’?
The question should rather be, ‘is any beekeeping natural?’ and the answer must be that, in nature, only bees keep bees.
As humans, our interest in them has been primarily selfish: we saw them as the source of a uniquely delicious, sweet substance and paid little heed to their pervasive presence in the natural world, where, largely unnoticed, they went about their business of farming flowers.
Farming? In the same way that horticulturists select plant varieties for breeding, so have the bees and other pollinators selected, over millions of years, the plants that provide them with food in the forms of pollen and nectar and so have greatly influenced the colours and patterns of our landscapes and the scents and flavours of the herbs and the hedgerow fruits that we have taken and further developed into the food we eat.
In this sense, bees may indeed be thought of as farmers. They have been carefully and skillfully selecting plants from among the available mutations and crosses for more than 100 million years, while we may have been dabbling in farming for a mere 10,000 or so. Whether they did their work ‘consciously’, or it simply happened as a side-effect of their food-gathering activities, is an open question to which we may never have a satisfactory answer. Such is the case with many of the most innocent-sounding questions about bees.
In terms of a practical understanding of nature, compared to the bees we are but infants. Before we turned up, they had the flowers to themselves – give or take the odd dinosaur – and they made a magnificent job of helping to create universal, recklessly varied biodiversity: never allowing one species to dominate and always ensuring that there would be, in the lands where they found it comfortable to live, something in flower that would provide them with sustenance at all possible times.
In cooler regions, honeybees learned to live in enclosed spaces, where they could control the temperature and humidity and protect their young from airborne diseases, with the help of resinous substances made by trees. They learned that, by cultivating certain plants, they could gather sufficient quantities of nectar in the warm season to enable them to store it in concentrated form in sealed containers, where it would not spoil and so provide them with food to last them until the air again became warm and new flowers emerged.
They understood that nectar was a watery substance and that containers for it had therefore to be impermeable to water, so they learned to make beeswax – the most water-proof substance in all the natural world – from glands in their own bodies. They understood the energy cost of manufacturing wax and so devised a system of cell construction that made the most efficient possible use of it, so it became a larder and a nursery and a thermal reservoir all in one.
They became familiar with the evaporation and condensation of water within the hive, learning to turn their living space into an efficient condenser in order to improve the recycling of both water and the heat contained in the vapour.
Honeybees learned to defend themselves against predators by acting together, in the same way that they worked together to bring in food and nurse their young. They learned that the key to thriving in their world was co-operation and co-ordination with the seasonal changes. They had no need to claim territory for themselves at the expense of other species and so they had no need to waste energy on aggression: there was plenty for all.
Their cousins, the bumblebees, were able to fly in lower temperatures due to their bulkier bodies and thicker fur and were able to use their longer probosces to reach nectar in certain flowers that honeybees left alone. Other species adapted to a particular range of flowers that were in season just when they chose to become active, while some became carnivorous, and so, within the Hymenoptera order, the bees, ants and wasps diverged and adapted, each to their own ecological niche.
Honeybees focused on their numerical advantage and unique ability to reach out into the surrounding landscape, concentrating and processing its products within the space of their carefully laid-out nest. This made them more attractive to sweet-loving predators, so they selected homes in hollow trees, well away from the ground, keeping their entrance small and well-protected by guards, which were at the point of graduating from internal duties to foraging.
When humans eventually appeared, they were just another minor nuisance, although they soon came armed with smoke and fire to claim their prize. Millions of years previously, bees had learned that smoke was often the harbinger of doom and that filling themselves with honey and evacuating their home was the only real defence. Humans mistook this behaviour for passivity and so began the habit of smoking bees before robbing them.
For tens of thousands of years, human interference in the lives of bees was limited to stealing honey from them once or twice per year. Most colonies escaped such attention, as they were inaccessible to these naked apes, who did not seem to be as clever at climbing trees as their hairy ancestors.
Early attempts at keeping bees within reach in order to rob them more easily involved placing containers akin to sections of hollow tree, more or less at ground level and making them attractive to passing swarms. Variations on this theme were employed by many cultures, according to locally-available materials: straw skeps were used in places where grain farming had been developed; reed skeps in the marshes; clay pots and pipes where sun was plentiful and rainfall low; logs and cork bark where such things grew freely, and volcanic rock was hollowed out in the more geologically unstable areas. The bees were left to manage their own affairs until such time as some of their stores could profitably be robbed.
It was not until the advent of the movable-frame hive and subsequent invention of the motor vehicle, followed by the introduction of toxic chemicals into what had hitherto been what we would now call an entirely ‘organic’ agricultural system that bees’ real problems with humans began.
The movable-frame hive, pioneered by Revd. Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth in the USA, was the first really successful attempt at keeping honey separate from brood, such that honey could be harvested in bulk without fear of ‘corruption’ by eggs and developing larvae. It thus signalled the dawn of a new relationship between man and bees: that of master and servant.
Langstroth’s hive, which, in tune with the Victorian zeitgeist, he regarded as fulfilling ‘God’s purpose’ in giving man mastery over nature, became the model upon which was based virtually every subsequent hive design that was created with the intention of providing the beekeeper with a maximum yield of honey. Commercial beekeeping was thus born in 1852 and came of age with the introduction of self-powered trucks some thirty or forty years later. By the beginning of the 20th century, it became possible to transport hives quickly in large numbers to where crops were in flower, enabling the bee farmers (as they became known) to offer a mobile pollination service as well as to benefit from the large harvests of honey.
Through the twentieth century, the scale of operations became substantially larger. In the USA, bee farmers controlling thousands – even tens of thousands – of hives became commonplace, and the methods of the commercial honey producer were taught to and aped by the home beekeeper, who had no reason to question the methods of ‘experienced’ men. Thus we see to this day beginners being taught to check their hives every week for queen cells and to cut them out to prevent swarming; to mark queens with paint and clip their wings and to perform a number of other ‘management’ operations to exercise their ‘God-given’ right to control the lives of these wild insects.
Meanwhile, a German conglomerate by the name of I.G.Farben branched out from its core industry of dyes into agricultural chemicals, derived from its development of chemical warfare products during World War I, and began making huge profits from the sale of insecticides and fertilizers. ‘Quick-fix’ industrial agriculture was born and industrial beekeeping followed swiftly in its wake.
However, along with the increase in scale came a commensurate increase in disease. From being a minor nuisance in the nineteenth century, foul brood became a serious threat, destroying huge numbers of colonies and resisting eradication. In Britain, during During WWII, Winston Churchill – himself a beekeeper – put in place the first Foul Brood Inspecors, in an effort to get the epidemic under control by the simple strategy of destroying affected colonies, on the sound principle that removing susceptibility to disease from breeding stock will tend to strengthen the survivors. The success of this approach is evidenced by the relative rarity of AFB outbreaks in Britain some 70 years later.
The other dread disease – the unrelated and somewhat less virulent European Foul Brood (EFB) – proved less easy to tackle and has in fact become somewhat more common in recent years.
Other diseases, such as Nosema apis and most recently Nosema cerana are endemic and the now almost ubiquitous parasitic mite Varroa destructor, with its assortment of vectored viruses, have taken a huge toll on the honeybee population in the last half century, despite a barrage of ‘medications’ that have’ in all likelihood, made the problems worse.
The tendency of the conventional beekeeping fraternity is to throw yet more chemicals that the problem, in the hope that a ‘magic bullet’ will one day be found and solve all their problems. To my mind, this is exactly the opposite of what needs to be done, since – as Einstein himself indicated – we will never solve such problems using the type of thinking that created them. If, when Varroa was first discovered in Britain in 1992, we had done nothing but stop all imports of bees, ban all medications and allowed the bees to find their own way of dealing with the challenge, we would have lost a large number of colonies – perhaps 90% or more – but by now, 20 years later, we would almost certainly have a growing population of locally-adapted, mite-resistant bees. Instead, we were persuaded that we should put pyrethroid-based miticides into our hives to kill off the foreign invaders. Within a few years – probably exacerbated by the simultaneous use of pyrethroids on much of the farmland of Britain – Varroa became immune to such treatment and we realized that we had, far from solving the problem, made it worse by selecting for pyrethroid-resistant mites and the drug pushers had made a nice profit from the exercise.
It seems clear to me that while we continue to prop up our toxic food production system for the benefit of the agri-chemical-biotech industry, we will simply repeat the same ill-conceived, destructive cycles until we succeed in doing irreparable damage to our soil, our food supply and our planet. Given the apparent resistance of humans to learning long-term lessons, I am not optimistic about the future of the intrepid yet vulnerable Apis mellifera or that mis-named biped, mired in superstition, greed and self-interest: Homo sapiens.
‘Natural beekeepers’, by themselves, cannot hope to solve the bigger problem of a dysfunctional agricultural system, but we can play our part. We have natural allies in the permaculture movement, where taking a long view is at the centre of its guiding philosophy. We are naturally aligned with organic growers and all those for whom nurturing healthy soil is fundamental. We have massive and largely untapped potential support among the general population, who need to hear the truth about what is being perpetrated on our land in the name of ‘progress’.
If we and the bees are to have a shared future, we have a responsibility to help upcoming generations to re-discover their deep connection to the natural world – perhaps in some form of ‘farm-and-forest school’ – and thereby to redeem our collective failure to wrest control of our food production system from the hands of the power-hungry few.