Natural or Conventional Debate

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.

Good evening

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.

Suppressing swarming

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.

Thank you.

See here for a follow up to the above.


23 Responses to Natural or Conventional Debate

  1. Elyse Pomeranz says:

    Bravo this is so clearly expressed and so helpful. THANK YOU! Do I have permission to quote from this in my work here in Toronto? warmly,
    Elyse Pomeranz

  2. simplebees says:

    Do I have permission to quote from this in my work here in Toronto?

    With acknowledgement, of course you do!


  3. Bill says:

    Excellent and very well reasoned. Thanks you.

  4. churford says:

    Hi Gareth, I enjoyed the debate last night at Stroud Beekeepers. Having been introduced to the wonders of bees by Heidi Herrmann of, it was a real pleasure to hear her speak again last night. It was also good to hear how much shared ground there is between the two ‘schools of thought’ of natural and conventional beekeepers particularly, I thought, in the joint identification of the problems bees face in lack of forage and environmental pollution. Less consensus on the solutions perhaps. I felt you nailed the challenge for natural beekeepers as being the need to change behaviours – how you begin to do that is open to debate. By attending events such as last night perhaps. Thanks again. I find this website and posts invaluable and welcome the attempts to reach a consensus.

  5. EricaHalfBee says:

    I found the debate a very interesting evening. Thank you whoever organised it, thank you to the speakers on both sides and especially thank you to Gareth and Heidi for your inspiring words and the way you so gently handled the vitriol and blinkered approach of a few (just a few) of the meeting delegates.
    I thought it was a brilliant evening and that a few ideals and thoughts about Natural beekeeping really had resonated in some of the traditional beek’s minds. These things take time to filter through. The calm, educated and informed approach that Heidi and Gareth portrayed is hard to criticise and undermine. They were both so eloquent and made such perfect sense that if beekeepers truly believe in the bees then they must hear the messages you brought to them, even sub consciously they must know you are speaking the truth even if they don’t want to admit they may have got it very wrong. The fact that they feel under attack was palpable, but I think your calm and learned words made it difficult for them to argue that the important thing is for us all to truly love and respect the bees.

  6. Chris Crook says:

    great words of wisdom Gareth 🙂

  7. Great stuff! will post link to this on permaculture sites.

  8. Buzz Aldrin says:

    Where can we find the science of the sugar-fed bee’s stomach?
    Bees collected from swarms? If nearly all feral colonies have been wiped out by varroa, where are these swarms coming from?
    How do natural beekeepers deal with varroa, EFB and other diseases?

    • simplebees says:

      ‘Where can we find the science of the sugar-fed bee’s stomach?’
      See: here.

      ‘….nearly all feral colonies have been wiped out by varroa….’
      Where I live they haven’t.

      ‘How do natural beekeepers deal with varroa’
      See my comment about treatment-free beekeepers in the OP. If you want a quick way to varroa tolerant bees, start with bees from an established (several years old) wild colony, put them in a bee appropriate hive and leave them alone. In the recent words of a bee inspector, varroa is really only a problem with ‘forced’ bees.

      As to other diseases, stress weakens the immune system of the colony and makes disease considerably worse. Much disease is beekeeper mediated, through transferring combs, forcing bees, making splits, moving colonies. Natural beekeeping does none of these things.

      Gareth, Cotswolds

  9. Jonathan Coote says:

    It seems a shame to create an ‘us and them’ atmosphere in beekeeping, rather like the ‘big enders and little enders’ in Gullivers travels (qv). who went to war over which end of a boiled egg is the correct one to open
    I am in favour of and am happy to support anyone who is interested in honeybees enough to look after them,,( and any other kinds of bee too.) They are all very important pollinators.. This is regardless of which system of management or non management people chose follow. There is no correct or faultless system in beekeeping.. As an example, in you statement you use a 19c skeppist in support of your proposition but overlook the fact that almost every colony kept by skeppists was ‘sulphered’ ( put over a tray of buring sulphur producing poisonous sulphur dioxide) which killed the whole colony at the end of the season in order to ‘take’ the honey. The Skeppist relied on catching wild swarms each year to continue his/her activities.They knew no better and swarms were exceedingly plentiful.

    One of the hidden benefits of people taking more of an interest in keeping honeybees, regardless of which system of management they use, is the recent increase in the number of swarms each year most of which depart unnoticed from beekeepers hives and set up as ‘feral’colonies.

    We should all be working together as beekeepers to safeguard our bee population and to encourage the enrichment of the environment they need to survive e.g enriching garden planting. One of your contributors asks where are swarms coming from?. They are not arising in any numbers from ‘the wild’ as according to the National Bee Unit in the wild fewer than one in three swarms survives its first year. They are from the 250 000 managed colonies in the UK whether those in your words, ‘natural’ or ‘conventional’ beekeepers. We all contribute to the fact that there are any ‘wild’colonies at all since the arrival of Varroa in the UK in 1992. I may prefer my method and I accept another beekeeper may prefer theirs. We are both doing the right thing in the face of the adversity that bees face.


    • simplebees says:

      “As an example, in you statement you use a 19c skeppist in support of your proposition but overlook the fact that almost every colony kept by skeppists was ‘sulphered’”

      I did not overlook this at all. The beekeeper I quoted did not sulphur his bees, but drove them from the skeps he wished to harvest and either allowed them to build up on a late flow or combined them with a weak colony.

      ‘We are both doing the right thing in the face of the adversity that bees face.’

      With all due respect, the attitude that permeates industrial ‘control-driven’ agriculture, which now is also to be found in beekeeping, is the cause of the problem. Until this attitude changes, the problems with bees will persist. We have to work within the rules of nature, not constantly ignore them or subvert them.

      Gareth, Cotswolds

  10. Jonathan Coote says:

    Thanks for your comments.

    You will see that I did not say that ALL skeppists sulphured their bees but it was certainly the usual practice for the vast majority at the time when skeps were the only significant way that bees were kept in this country. Driving was a process that enabled either bees or honey in a skep to be separated from the other for sale or consumption as the case may be but in those days bees were seldom overwintered by skeppists.These were all common practices right up to 1939 and beyond in some areas of the UK (see R.O.B.Manley and others)
    If when you mention Industrial ‘control driven’ beekeeping you are thinking about large scale commercial beekeeping in countries like the USA and parts of Australia I agree with you Beekeepers there who use these methods are now paying the price. There are no beekeepers in the UK who operate on anything like that sort of scale or who use those methods and no beekeepers in the UK that I know of, including several larger scale operators who think the American commercial beekeepers have got it right. They don’t..

  11. simplebees says:

    Dear Jonathan

    When I talk of ‘control’ I am referring not to the question of scale, but to the attitude that man must control nature or it will otherwise run amok. By way of example, it is frequently stated that if you, the beekeeeper, don’t control varroa you will lose all of your bees. This may be true if you push your colonies and force them to have artificially large brood nests. However, if you start with local stock and allow them to rear brood nests appropriate for the season, varroa losses are remarkably low and may even by nil. In quiet moments, bee inspectors will agree, but only on an unattributable basis. We certainly hear nothing about this from the BBKA because this would contradict the official line that man has to take charge or chaos will result.

    Gareth, Cotswolds

    • Jonathan Coote says:

      You may of course hold the view that feral colonies of bees can survive indefinitely against the effects of varroa and indeed overcome it, if you believe that is the case. Sadly if it was true we would have plenty of feral colonies but we have scarcely any, certainly by comparison with pre-varroa times,in fact virtually none.
      Most of the damage the mite causes is through the viruses it passes on rather than physical damage to the bee.
      We cannot get rid of the viruses but varroa can be successfully kept in check as a carrier these days without hard chemicals such as bayvarol. and with very little interference with the colony’s daily routine.
      Most feral colonies which appear to survive for some time are found in fact to have been taken over by new swarms coming from nearby beekeepers when the feral colony has been considerably weakened by the mite borne viruses.
      The vast majority of losses due to varroa in what you would call conventionally managed colonies are actually in those where the owner has taken a ‘set and forget’ line and not employed any preventive measures. The colony gradually weakens and dies out. This is a particular problem for new or inexperienced beekeepers and is very discouraging for them. Conversely when the mite is actively controlled making use of the bees inbuilt inclinations, colonies remain strong and thrive for many the opportunity for further colonies either from natural swarms of from the division of a strong colony at a time when the colony is ready to do so naturally in terms of its strength and resources
      This can be achieved without forcing the bees to do anything abnormal. It just takes patience.and a good understanding of what is needed.
      Bees like all insects can only behave in the way they inherit in their genes. It is not possible for mankind to change the fundamental behaviour of a bee or a colony, all we can do after many centuries of beekeeping is to change the response of a colony to the various stimuli bees react to such as enabling the bees to produce a bigger colony by providing adequate space for colony growth or giving better protection from the extremes of heat cold and humidity. If we add to that some limited defense against pests, parasites and diseases that they might otherwise be exposed to it is hardly surprising that bees can respond beneficially and thrive to a better extent in terms of their success both in terms of colony size and reproduction compared with those in a totally natural state and much more so than those faced with a challenge like varroa for which they will have no natural defense for millenia to come.
      You clearly subscribe to this idea and recognise its benefits to the colony by you yourself providing some sort of man made housing for your colonies with certain universal features such as good ventilation, insulation from excessive heat, cold and wet and basic protection from natural predators such as woodpeckers and badgers. This is why I am comfortable in saying again that we are both doing the right thing for bees in the face of adversity…. but perhaps in slightly different ways, and there is nothing wrong with that.

      • simplebees says:


        You say:

        “Conversely when the mite is actively controlled making use of the bees inbuilt inclinations, colonies remain strong and thrive for many the opportunity for further colonies either from natural swarms ….”

        This is precisely what bees themselves do when given good hives and then left alone. The bees actively control the mite. There are many subtle behaviours and physiological factors involved which are well documented in the scientific literature. Every time we interfere with that hive, we disrupt some of those factors. Even ‘soft’ varroa treatments, such as essential oils, harm bees. I came to this understanding not because of ‘opinion’ or ‘belief’ but by reading documented research published in scientific journals. There is plenty of it.

        You seem to infer that bee behaviour and physiology is a mechanistic product of genes, and that the system takes aeons to change. Once again, this is not in accordance with current research. For example, bee behaviour has been shown to be highly plastic through genes switching on or off via epigenitic feedback loops. In this way the behaviour and physiology of the bee responds to the environment, even within the lifetime of a single bee. Organisms and their environment are in a constant dialogue. Putting into the hives substances that do not belong there, however benign we humans may think they are, disrupts these very subtle and complex systems.

        You also refer to the ‘division’ of colonies in the same breath as swarming, as if those two things are the same. They are not. Swarming is true reproduction. Division, or splitting, is not true reproduction. It is sometimes referred to as horizontal reproduction. Horizontal reproduction is known to increase the virulence of pathogens. The likely consequence of splitting colonies is that the viruses you refer to become more aggressive. This harms the bees and is a good reason to allow bees to propagate only by swarming.

        You keep saying that our ways are only slightly different and this was said many times at the debate. However, the more I discuss this the more I conclude that our attitudes are very different. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is important that people see there is a choice in terms of approach so they can make an informed decision.

        Gareth, Cotswolds

  12. Jonathan Coote says:

    Bye for now

  13. Andy says:

    I am not a beekeeper, but I am interested in this debate. Do you consider the mindset of many beekeepers to be more of a problem to healthy bees than the chemicals being used by farmers (which, from my reading are detrimental to bees and other insects in so many ways)?

  14. simplebees says:

    The mindset of forcing bees to produce more honey in the same way that dairy cattle are forced to produce ever more milk, is certainly a major problem. It is one that is beginning to be seen by some conventional beekeepers, although by no means all. Engagement such as this debate helps spread the message, although sadly I get attacked for consorting with the ‘enemy’ by some so-called natural beekeepers.


    • Andy says:

      I have nothing but praise for you and your efforts, but then again, I am not a beekeeper. We all need to think what is best for the bees, even if we don’t agree with the conclusions.
      Keep up the great work!

  15. lindylou says:

    Gareth, you have my support in your attempts at consorting with the enemy. How otherwise can they be encouraged to re-think their approach if they are not faced with reasonable thoughts and then reasonably based doubt on conventional methods. These things you do admirably, gently, elloquently and it is a fine read. I wish I had your capabilities here in my region. As asked before I would like to pass on to Dutch beekeepers or try translating some of what you post. Would you agree or do you want me to ask each time I am delighted with a certain post.

    • simplebees says:

      Hi Lindylou

      “I would like to pass on to Dutch beekeepers or try translating some of what you post.”

      Feel free.

      “…do you want me to ask each time”

      Not necessary. 🙂


  16. lindylou says:

    Gareth from April onwards I will have pollen traps on my hives as part of a European wide investigation into the biodiversiteit where my bees forage. I was wondering what the natural beekeeping take is on this sort of ‘interference’ towards a bee colony? Do you have any links to this kind of information please?

  17. Justin Peters says:

    Bees kept in very thin boxes struggle to survive because they are cold and sometimes also damp.
    Bees need a high level of insulation to fend off the nasties we have given them.

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