Bees have been pretty much untouched by the activities of man until relatively recently. To put that into context, assume that bees have been around in roughly their present form for 10 million years (OK, it could be longer than this, but let’s keep it simple). If I were to live to be 100 years old, I would need to repeat that lifetime 100,000 times to reach 10 million years. Modern beekeeping, with its intensive management techniques and the desire to breed ‘better’ bees has been around for about 100 years – just one of my lifetimes. The question arises: what were bees doing for the other 99,999 lifetimes? This suggests that bees can manage perfectly well without intrusive management by man.
Despite this fact, beginners are often taught to regularly pull the hive apart to check that the bees are healthy, or that the queen is laying adequately or to ensure that the bees are not about to swarm. Over recent years, I have come to the conclusion that such activities cause the bee colony more harm than help. Frequently pulling the hive apart damages colony integrity. Cohesion and communication between different groups of bees within the colony is disrupted, propolis seals are broken, colony warmth escapes, essential pheromones are lost, volatile hive-atmosphere components are dissipated and the hive-level immune system is compromised. It can take several days for the colony to repair the damage and re-establish its equilibrium. This diverts energy and resource from other tasks that, although unnoticed by the beekeeper, are essential to healthy colony functioning.
When you acquire a cat or a dog, you do not remove its ribs every time you want to check that it is breathing. Yet this is exactly what new beekeepers are taught; they are encouraged to dismantle a bee colony comb by comb on a frequent basis. Those combs are the colony’s ribs; they are an integral part of the whole. Over the last few years I have come to think that we need to revisit how we look at bee colonies; we need to see the colony as a single unit rather than as a collection of individual insects that just happen to live in the same box. We need to learn to read the colony from the outside: feel the warmth with our hands, through the sides of the hive and through the top of the bars, judge the stores by hefting the hive, watch the activity at the entrance and link this to the weather and flowering plants to judge what the bees are up to.
More than anything, we need to learn to trust the bees rather than trying to do their job for them. This takes courage; it is far easier to ‘inspect’ or do something ‘just in case’ than to sit back and rely on the bees managing their own affairs. What if they are not and they dwindle and even die through our neglect? This is where experience comes in. The beginner will inevitably be tempted to ‘inspect’ more because they will be unsure about the external signs – and there will always be some things that need more than an external check. But, as experience is gained, I believe we can all learn to interfere with our bees less and observe them more. We can learn to be less surgeons and more watchers.