I have kept bees on and off for decades, and this is my seventh season of what is often called ‘natural beekeeping‘. For me, the term natural beekeeping contains a fusion of three concepts: ‘bee‘, ‘natural‘ and ‘keeping‘.
‘Bee’ refers to the animal that is being cared for. Honeybees are not like other domestic animals. Indeed, I would suggest that they are not ‘domestic’ at all. I say this because the other domestic animals with which we are familiar – cows, sheep, cats, dogs – are all products of a long association with man. Their patterns of behaviour and physiology have been conditioned by this association and, as a result, they are quite distinct from their wild ancestors. Honey bees are not like this, they are still very much the wild animals they always were.
The word ‘natural’ indicates beekeeping that respects this natural behaviour and biology. Thanks to the work of researchers such as Tom Seeley and Jurgen Tautz we now understand far more about this than we did previously. In particular, we see that what might appear to be a bunch of insects that just happen to live in the same box is, in fact, an immensely complex organism.
A conservationist might say that the natural thing to do with such an organism is to ensure there are enough nest sites available – hollow trees or man made boxes – and leave the bees to it. Indeed this is the stance taken by some that I know. For me, however, the last term, ‘keeping’, indicates that there is a human in the equation along with the bees. This particular human sees keeping as meaning something akin to ‘assisting’.
We have all heard that bees are under increasing stress. I have no direct control over things such as habitat degradation or widespread insecticide use. However, I can minimise stress due to beekeeper actions by avoiding the use of harmful chemicals in my hives. I can also minimise disruption to the delicate internal balance of the hive by reading the state of my hives from external signals instead of pulling them apart for weekly ‘inspections’.
Faced with the particular challenges of beekeeping in the modern environment, I constantly ask myself, ‘if this happened in the wild, how would the bees respond?’. The answer to that question very often tells me how I, as a natural beekeeper, can assist The Bee to the mutual benefit of bees and humans.