This is the text of the opening statement I gave in support of the motion ‘Natural Beekeeping is the Way Forward for British Beekeepers’ in a debate at Stroud Beekeepers Association in January 2014 to a mixed audience of about 110 conventional and natural beekeepers. About half the audience voted at the end, with the motion being carried by an overwhelming majority.
Thank you all for coming.
On behalf of the Natural Beekeeping Trust, I am proposing the motion that ‘Natural Beekeeping is the way forward for British Beekeepers’.
This motion is about change: doing things differently in the future. Today, we see problems for bees right across the world. Many reasons are given for this, but I contend that the mindset of modern beekeepers is part of the problem.
We all want healthy bees. But how do we achieve that? What should our mindset be if we, as beekeepers, want vibrant, healthy bees?
The conventional approach promises health through actions by beekeepers: artificial breeding, suppression of natural reproduction, frequent hive inspections, chemical treatments, increased biosecurity. The list is endless.
In contrast, natural beekeeping sees the solution as lying in actions by the bees. The role of the beekeeper is to help the bee to exist as nature intended, not to force the bee to exist as man thinks she should.
Put another way, conventional beekeepers demand control over nature; natural beekeepers follow a path of trust in nature.
If we lose our trust in something, it is not long before we begin to fear it. It is fear of nature that breeds the desire for control over nature.
Everything we do as gardeners, farmers and beekeepers we do in the context of the natural world. The ‘natural’ approach is to allow nature to establish a balance.
Conversely, if we seek to dominate the world with ever more control -physical and chemical- we will eventually destroy the world. And, if we destroy the natural world, we destroy ourselves.
Let’s examine the evidence for the statement that we are destroying the natural world.
The natural world has existed for millions of years. Bees have existed for millions of years. Agriculture has existed for a few thousand years. Intensive agriculture for maybe one hundred years.
Looking at that hundred years, can we see any change in the productivity of the landscape? Let’s look at honey yields.
A book, called the Handy Book of Bees, was published in 1875. The author was a skeppist and allowed his bees to swarm. Today, we’d call him a natural beekeeper. He judged the progress of his colonies by weighing them.
He says that the weight of a prime swarm in its skep at the end of the season could easily be 125 pounds. A skep itself does not weigh much, so most of this weight is bees, comb and honey.
But that’s not all: add the mother hive, at 80 pounds, and maybe a cast, and the total weight at the end of the season was often 200 to 300 pounds: 200 to 300 pounds of bees, comb and honey in one season from one hive!
Granted, these figures refer to good years. Even so, today they seem simply incredible.
BBKA figures show that the average yield per hive today is around 25 pounds, having fallen from around 40 pounds 20 years ago.
This shows a dramatic decline in the productivity of our landscape and of our bees. Compared with a hundred years ago, we live in a world that is substantially impoverished.
Throughout this time, agriculture and beekeeping, have been dominated by the approach of ‘control over nature’. Hence my statement that the control mentality, the fear mentality, is destroying nature.
What does ‘control over nature’ mean in the context of bees and what are the consequences? Here are some of the things conventional beekeeping advocates. The list is by no means exhaustive.
Removing the natural food of the bee, honey, and replacing it with sugar
Look through a microscope at the stomach of a bee fed only sugar. Parts of it will be shriveled. The stomach of a bee fed only honey is plump. Honey contains 180 different substances. To bees, it is not the same as sugar.
Natural beekeepers allow their bees to keep, and live on, their own honey.
Artificially enlarging the brood nest
Forcing bees to make large brood nests breaks the synchrony between the bee and the environment and increases varroa loads.
Natural beekeepers do not artificially enlarge the brood nest, nor practice stimulatory sugar feeding.
Swarming is the way bees reproduce. It creates genetic diversity. In bees, high genetic diversity correlates with health. If you suppress swarming you lower genetic diversity. This harms health.
Natural beekeepers allow their bees to reproduce by swarming and do not artificially rear queens.
Importing bees and queens
According to meteorologists, no other country has weather as variable as ours. So, how can imported bees, of any type, be suited to our climate? We are told bee farmers can only survive by importing bees. What does that say about the state of British beekeeping?
Natural beekeepers source their bees from local swarms.
Using neurotoxins and acids to control varroa
These chemicals also harm bees. Even soft varroa treatments adversely affect bees.
There are growing numbers of non-treatment beekeepers around the country. Varroa does not run out of control in their hives.
Using comb foundation
Bees naturally build a variety of cell sizes smaller than the size of cells in commercial foundation. They do this for a reason. Why stop them? Also, why use someone else’s wax? Do you have any idea what it contains?
Natural beekeepers allow the bees to make their own comb without foundation.
Weekly, detailed hive inspections
In effect, this is opening up the organism that is the bee -when one realizes that the whole colony is the organism. It is done to spread the brood, control swarming and, often, simply to satisfy curiosity.
Imagine you have a cat. To check it’s insides are working properly, once a week you perform detailed surgery on the cat. How long will that cat survive?
Natural beekeepers observe hives from the outside. Occasional interference may be necessary, but only when the bees truly need it.
Finally, it is sometimes said that natural beekeeping is irresponsible, and leads to unhealthy bees which spread disease.
The evidence suggests the opposite.
The disease-spreading myth illustrates fear of nature driving the desire to control nature. People no longer trust nature to do what she does naturally. She has been doing rather well for millions of years and will continue to do well if we place our trust in her.
To conclude: ladies and gentlemen, trust is free. Learn to trust nature and work within her rules.
I urge you to support the motion that Natural Beekeeping is the way forward for British Beekeepers.
See here for a follow up to the above.