BBKA Letter

I was intrigued to read this letter, and response in the recent edition of BBKA News. The questioner is responding to a previous article on the dangers of unmanaged hives and colonies, which to me sounds as if it could also be a discussion of the differences between conventional and “natural” beekeeping. She states

“My question is this: what, if anything, is the difference between a natural wild nest of honey bees and an unmanaged colony? The paragraph on page 15 suggests nature copes well with pests, predators and disease. In a later paragraph it is said that unmanaged colonies are a problem.  Why the discrepancy? Hives are superior hollow trees so I fail to see any essential difference between a wild nest and an unmanaged colony.”

Part of the response to this also raises a few questions:

“Much worse are badly managed colonies where the beekeeper makes no effort to prevent swarming and does not inspect for disease or possibly for any other reason. In this hive…colonies are kept on increasingly old comb. These hives will harbour a disease load on the combs and will get progressively weaker and get robbed out before wax moth can destroy the comb.”

This seems to raise a number of issues, which I hoped someone with more experience could help clarify. Partly, I am concerned at how do we attempt to defend our practice and also educate the conventional beekeeping community.

Graham, Reading Berks

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12 Responses to BBKA Letter

  1. Robin says:

    I don’t get the BBKA newsletter but it doesn’t surprise me. Many conventional beekeepers still believe that we (man) knows best and the bees are idiots.

    IMHO leave alone is FAR better that mess and meddle. As to many of the arguments read John Haverson’s excellent article which was previously published in the BBKA rag.

  2. salp111 says:

    I have also had one or two recent & not so recent conversations with “conventional” beekeepers about “natural” beekeeping where in the one case, I was told how irresponsible it was to allow such swarming (I kept quiet at that point, not being well informed re the pros & cons.) However, in a subsequent similar conversation, I was able to put forward a fairly good (I thought/hope) theory that by swarming, the bees were able to manage the varroa better than staying put in an infested nest (although the new queen & her entourage left in the nest would have to contend with them…mind you, they also have the option of swarming too…which seemed to happen alot last year) & I thought also that by not disturbing the nest by lid-lifting & treatments with insecticides! the bees could be able better to raise their nest temperature sufficiently to possibly kill alot of the grubs in the drone cells, thereby managing their environment better than we could. Don’t know about such things as chalk brood & E & AFB either but somehow, bees survive in the wild.
    Please if I am completely off the wall with some of this, do let me know. It did give the conventional beekeeper something to think about. Maybe how nutty I am…who knows.

  3. salp111 says:

    I have just read the article that Robin suggested so I was not far off the mark. It’s a very interesting article well worth reading. Cheers Robin

    Edited by mod: the article is also available in the articles section of this blog, here.

  4. jen3972 says:

    Hi there. I was introduced to beekeeping from a ‘traditional’ BBKA viewpoint but have since been running my hives according to more natural principles. I use regular Nationals, just with foundationless frames and I’ve taken out the queen excluders, and I only take the lid off when absolutely necessary. I also spend a lot of time simply observing the bees. I recently rescued a wild bees’ nest from our local church and there was a mixture of old comb and new, and evidence of the nest migrating from the top to lower down in the roof space – presumably as the comb became unsitable for use as there was a great deal of friable comb a few dead bees in other spaces within the roof. It reassured me that bees can do perfectly well without constant intervention from the likes of us. I have some pictures on my blog if anyone is interested.

    I am not sure how to go about promoting a less interventionist form of beekeeping. My hunch is that we all need to keep good records and observations so that there is some quantifiable evidence that even if we don’t necessarily get enormous honey yields, there are benefits such as calmer bees, reduced reliance on mite prevention, less time in a beesuit (my personal number one reason!) and increased viability of colonies, to mention a few.

  5. simplebees says:

    I read the article and thought it was tippy-toeing around the elephant in the room. When the dust has settled, there is one overwhelming difference between managed bee colonies and feral ones. It is, as the above replies have already pointed out, the human in the bee suit. Bees have developed a life style over millennia that enables them to remain healthy and, as John H’s article points out, this includes swarming. It also includes, amongst other things, the use of propolis and the eating of old comb by wax moth. Yet beekeepers are taught to suppress swarming, to keep bees that are bred to swarm as little as possible, to keep bees that use only small amounts of propolis and to keep wax moth under rigorous ‘control’. Personally, I would put the use of propolis – which is essential to control the microbiota of the hive – at the top of my list of things that bees should do and should be encouraged to do.

    One of the above posts touches on bee diseases such as EFB and AFB. Of these, AFB is painted as the real baddy. It is worth pondering the following extract taken from the New Zealand Journal of Zoology. It very eloquently makes the point about the human in the bee suit!

    The data suggest that New Zealand’s feral bee population is relatively free of American foulbrood disease. This is significant considering that some of the colonies tested may have been established for significantly more than 6.7 years. Over the last 4 years, a total of 6.6% of the managed colonies in Waikato (7.9% for all of New Zealand) have been reported to have American foulbrood disease and have been destroyed. Again, this is probably an underestimate of the number of colonies infected with American foulbrood disease. Perhaps feral colonies are at greater risk of contracting American foulbrood disease from managed colonies rather than the other way around.

    This survey suggests that honey bees in their natural state may be virtually free of American foulbrood disease. There are several possible explanations for this.

    (1) When a feral colony is established via a swarm, the disease may be left behind in the parent colony. The practice of “shook swarming” relies on this: shaking diseased bees onto new foundation often eliminates the disease (Dunham & King 1934).

    (2) Feral colonies are not contaminated via normal beekeeping practices such as swapping brood or using contaminated hive parts.

    (3) Drift of bees between neighbouring colonies is unlikely to be significant. This leaves only robbing of other colonies as a means of disease transmission.

    The low incidence of this disease found in the feral colonies suggests that much of the American foulbrood disease reported in managed colonies results from the management techniques used rather than from cross contamination from feral bees.

    From: R. M. Goodwin, A. Ten Houten & J. H. Perry (1994): Incidence of American foulbrood infections in feral honey bee colonies in New Zealand, New Zealand Journal of Zoology, 21:3, 285-287

    As to: I am concerned at how do we attempt to defend our practice and also educate the conventional beekeeping community

    My answer is that we have to gently show that there IS a better way; a way that follows the bee rather than the beekeeper. In large measure that means actually seeing the way of the bee – not something you find in many ‘beekeeping’ books (David Heaf’s is a notable exception). It also means running enough hives healthily for enough years – either singly or in groups – such that the results cannot be dismissed as simply ‘lucky’. Groups such as YABeeP can make a very significant contribution in this regard. I would suggest also that some form of record be kept year on year to document the results of our efforts – folk take things more seriously when they are documented rather than just being ‘anecdote’.

    Gareth, Cotswolds

  6. johnmkubwa says:

    Graham asks “what, if anything, is the difference between a natural wild nest of honey bees and an unmanaged colony?” I suppose the main difference is that wild nests are built remote from those of other colonies to avoid competition for forage and to reduce chances of bees drifting and robbing which will spread disease. An unmanaged colony may well be part of an apiary with numerous hives sited close together.

    Those of us who have adopted non intrusive beekeeping reduce risks of the spread of bacteria and pathogens by closely watching colony behaviour and monitoring hive conditions ( smell, weight and sound) If indications are not ‘normal’, we may have to conduct an intrusive inspection and take action. With a Warré hive the comb is regularly changed as boxes are removed by harvesting and replaced by nadiring. Near natural beekeeping using a hive should not be unmanaged beekeeping.

    Wild or feral colonies living in trees or roofs are unmanaged but are probably disease free as indicated in the scientific text below. A tree colony may over time find its cavity becomes ‘honeybound”, full of old brood comb or the ‘sump’ full of detritus; it may decide to swarm to new locations. Wax moth will destroy old combs and mites, micro organisms and fungi will continue to break down the sump rubbish. In time the cavity will become re-useable. The tree cavity is IMO superior to any hive; with thicker walls it is better insulated; it is usually high off the ground, secluded and away from interference.

    Besides Goodwin (covered by Gareth) I include relevant comment by Bailey and Locke:

    In his paper ” Wild Honeybees and Disease” 1958 Bailey (Bee Research Dept Rothamstead) concludes “There seem to be many reasons why beekeeper’s colonies should have more disease than wild colonies. It is difficult to formulate such plausible reasons for the opposite point of view, and the evidence so far received indicates that wild colonies are the more healthy.

    In his book ‘ Infectious Diseases of the Honeybee’ 1963 Bailey writes – ‘AFB was rampant in Hawaii in the early 1930s but according to Keck seemed rare in 1949. It was thought that resistant bees had survived after beekeeping had virtually collapsed in about 1938 when bees had apparently been left to their own devices…… Hundreds of colonies from abandoned apiaries, where comb had been largely destroyed by wax moth and numerous swarms in cliffs and trees etc, were examined and no disease was found.

    More recently in their 2012 paper
    “Host adaptations reduce the reproductive success of Varroa destructor in two distinct European honey bee populations” Barbara Locke et al write-

    “Besides suppressing mite reproduction, both Varroa resistant European honey bee populations in this study also share the fact that they have been unmanaged, enabling natural selection (as opposed to artificial) to shape the evolution of their mite resistance. This is an important consideration since it highlights the impact that apicultural practices otherwise have on these host–parasite interactions ”

    I can send people copy of the papers but not the book if you contact me directly

    John, N Hampshire

  7. Paul says:

    First, concerning the original post: there is _some_ truth in what the conventional beeks say, inasmuch as a serious new parasite can wipe out many colonies before resistance develops. Consider the Isle of Wight disease and how it more or less wiped out British bees. However, they are guilty of loose thinking with these accusations about natural beekeeping leading to lax disease control. Firstly, if a bee inspector came to my apiary, I would welcome their experience and advice. If one of my hives had, say, AFB, I’d go through the required draconian procedure. But as others have mentioned elsewhere, the incidence of AFB, EFB and varroa is much lower in feral colonies which shows that the bees are actually hampered by conventional beekeeping techniques. Secondly, they are drawing parallels between conventional hives, with unnatural comb construction, going “bad” when unattended, and ones built along natural lines, where the bees control the comb. As for swarming, they’re plain wrong, but others have already addressed that.

    jen3962 is one of the new generation of beeks who is synthesising a hybrid approach, taking the best ideas from both conventional and “natural” beekeeping. Modifying standard hives is a great way of blending the best of both. Jen also has keen observation re: the bees in the church roofspace. I have a slightly tongue in cheek theory that the optimum habitat for a bee colony is not a TBH / Warre / tree hollow but a roof space – a nice dry, semi temperature controlled hollow.

    • jen3972 says:

      Thank you – I completely agree that non-intrusive beekeeping, whatever hive system is used, is entirely different from simple neglect.

  8. johnmkubwa says:

    Paul wrote:” I have a slightly tongue in cheek theory that the optimum habitat for a bee colony is not a TBH / Warre / tree hollow but a roof space – a nice dry, semi temperature controlled hollow.”

    I agree with you. I have been the swarm liaison contact for the Andover District over the past 7 years. During that time I have seen dozens of colonies living in roofs, cavity walls and chimneys. If they are high up and not interfering with people I ask that they are left alone rather than poisoned (1). Most people are aware bees need our help and are pleased to co-operate, especially as I offer to help clear up swarms. They even allow me to put bait hives in their gardens and report back bee activity.

    Some beeks think feral bees die out every year and are replaced by swarms. I monitor twice a year – in early spring before swarming, to confirm winter survival; and in autumn to check the colony is in place going into winter. In some sites wild/feral colonies have survived for years.

    Note 1. if a persistent poison is used it can be carried back to hives by foraging bees.and kill healthy colonies.
    John, N Hampshire

    • jen3972 says:

      I agree. The bees I retrieved had to be relocated as the roof was being replaced. I must point out that our success was *after* the bees had had a dose of poison puffed in to the entrance by a Pest Control man, on the grounds that they were wasps. An astonishing lack of knowledge and frightening to think how many other “wasps’ nests” have received the same treatment. I have heard many conventional Beekeepers say that feral colonies – if they believe there are any! – won’t survive and are a danger to managed colonies…

      I’d love to know where they get their stats from?

  9. Paul says:

    Feral bees come only from escaped swarms?!

    John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club (possibly the first conservation movement in the USA) had a couple of interesting observations along these lines. There was a discussion about how to protect the Redwood trees from fire, the locals had been clearing brush away. (This is before people realised they needed fire to trigger their seeds to germinate, and the big trees survive fires just fine.) He said something along the lines of “how did the trees survive before humans protected them?” Another relevant quote: “God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.”

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