Bee-Centred vs Conventional Beekeeping
In large parts of the world, honey bees are struggling to remain healthy and vigorous. The constant need to administer chemical treatments and to import bees from afar to replenish losses shows that our beekeeping is unsustainable. Rather than try to fix the problem through even more intervention, the NBKT starts with the premise that understanding, respecting, and supporting the essential biological needs of the bee in a holistic manner is fundamental to having healthy bees. We call this bee-centred beekeeping. This style of beekeeping is firmly based on the biology of the honeybee and is very different from the style of beekeeping taught to beginners by conventional beekeeping organisations, such as the BBKA. We are often asked to detail the differences between the two approaches, so we have put together the following material.
For those wishing to read the science that underpins what follows, we recommend the following books:
‘Honeybee Ecology’, ‘The Wisdom of the Hive’ and ‘Honeybee Democracy’ by Tom Seeley;
‘The Buzz about Bees’ by Jürgen Tautz and
‘The Biology of the Honeybee’ and ‘Bee Time’ by Mark Winston.
An extensive and searchable list of extracts from scientific papers relating to bee biology and natural beekeeping is presented on this page. The paper referred to there, by Neumann and Blacquière, points out the often negative influence on bee health of many conventional beekeeping practices. This paper, which itself contains extensive references, is discussed on our blog. It is available online here.
When we talk about conventional beekeeping we are referring to the beekeeping techniques taught to hobbyists by the British Beekeepers Association, the BBKA. We recognise that not all beekeepers follow the teachings of the BBKA, but since the BBKA approach is promoted as the essential methodology to which new beekeepers should aspire, it is used as a point of reference in what follows. In the same manner, conventional hives means hives such as the Langstroth or National.
The trustess express their thanks to Dave Darby at LILI for prompting us to produce this comparison.
We occasionally receive complaints from conventional beekeepers that what is presented here does not reflect their approach.
We do not wish to misrepresent and are happy to receive and consider specific comments regarding anything we have misunderstood. Meanwhile it might be helpful to make the following general remarks.
First, we comment only on beekeeping practices promulgated in the UK by the BBKA. We cannot comment on practices elsewhere in the world which, we are informed, are often different. Second, as stated above, we recognise that not all conventional beekeepers in the UK follow the practices outlined and some disagree with them strongly. Nevertheless, it remains the case that the practices described below are both taught by the BBKA to beginners and also regularly encouraged in BBKA publications.
Swarm control, artificial queen rearing and queen clipping can be contentious, the latter particularly so. With regard to these, we refer to the BBKA's published syllabus, and its regular newsletter. Here are some extracts from the teaching syllabus (with added emphasis):
"The Candidate will prepare their apiary to show their approach to general beekeeping, queen rearing and swarm control.
The Assessors will examine the Candidates’ method of queen rearing. This ...demonstrate that the candidate is selecting the material for breeding and not rely (sic) on the use of naturally occurring swarm cells.
Sufficient spare equipment:
for queen marking and clipping;
The Candidate will be required to:
Demonstrate marking and clipping a queen, or use a drone as a substitute if appropriate;
Describe the advantages of marking and clipping queens"
(Taken from Syllabus for General Certificate in Beekeeping Husbandry October 2013 revision.)
Note the use of the term 'control' with respect to swarming rather than 'management'. The latter which might suggest working with the bees. Notwithstanding that any experienced beekeeper will know that 'control' over swarming -the natural reproductive process of the bee- is simply not possible, it is nevertheless urged. This attitude is well summarised in the regular newsletter of the BBKA, which recently exhorted: "I do hope you are doing all that you can to prevent your bees from swarming...". More on this can be read here.
From Trees to Boxes
Human entrance to a tree bee hive
Entrance slot of tree hive covered with insulation cover.
When it comes to keeping bees, it is entirely possible to hollow out a tree to attract a swarm and, if one arrives, allow the bees to just get on with it. This replicates what happens in nature. So, if we recognise the bee as a wild creature (and it is far more wild than it is domesticated), we can encourage it by providing suitable nest sites, just as we do for birds with bird boxes. Tree beekeeping on these lines is a fully viable approach and is a practice that has been practice for centuries in eastern Europe and Russia.
What happens, however, if you don’t have a forest to play with? One then reverts to some sort of box in which the bees can form their home. Commercial beekeeping uses machine made boxes that are square and contain 'frames'. They form a filing cabinet for the bee. The essence of a filing cabinet is that it allows easy retrieval of its contents. This is convenient for the beekeeper, but rather less so for for the bee, which has evolved to live in hollow trees, high in the air, not filing cabinets at ground level. Hobby beekeeping is often taught as if it were a subset of commercial beekeeping, with all the interference that goes with it.
By contrast, bee-centred beekeeping seeks to accommodate the intrinsic needs of the bee, in terms of the home in which the bee wants to live and the management regime followed by the beekeeper. It does this in the belief that conventional approaches are, at least in part, responsible for the difficulties the bee faces in today’s world.
Perhaps the most important thing that a beekeeper does for their bees is to provide shelter, which prompts the question: what do honey bees need by way of shelter? One hears of swarms moving into all sorts of strange containers. This is sometimes interpreted as meaning that almost any container will do. An alternative explanation is that bees are conditioned by their evolutionary past to appraise any potential home as if it were a hollow tree and that this can lead to strange, and not always appropriate, choices. In the millions of years before man-made structures appeared, it seems reasonable to assume that hollow trees would have been the predominant bee shelter, with perhaps caves coming second in some localities. In other words, bee behaviour is likely to have evolved to suit living in hollow trees.
Despite the preference of park keepers for trees that are solid, in natural conditions, many older trees have hollow insides. The cavities thus created are vertical in orientation and generally have thick walls, giving a high level of thermal insulation between the cavity and the outside air.
When it comes to building a nest in a tree, Tom Seeley’s work in the USA suggests that:
Swarms prefer cavities with a volume of around 40 litres over cavities that are substantially smaller or larger than this and generally prefer cavities that are around 3 metres or more from the ground.
The swarm starts building from the top of the cavity and extends its combs downwards. (The alternative would be to start at the bottom and build upwards; it would be problematic to start in the middle.) It is worth remembering that the heat collects at the top.
The bee colony typically builds half a dozen long combs, perhaps reflecting the fact that tree cavities tend to be much longer than they are wide.
These combs are fixed to the sides of the cavity at intervals. The bases of the combs hang freely and are shaped in a catenary curve.
Different sized cells are created in the combs for storage, the raising of worker bees and the raising of drone bees (the latter comprising perhaps 15% of the total). Special cells for raising queens ('queen cells') are constructed on the lower edge of the comb at the base of the colony.
The interior of the tree cavity is coated with a layer of propolis, a sticky resin collected from trees and shrubs.
Comparing such a natural bee hive with a hive provided by beekeepers, the first difference we see is that conventional hives are expanded upwards, reversing the natural inclination of the bees to start at the top and grow their colony downwards. This leads to the bees constantly attempting to move upwards into the empty space that is placed above them. To prevent the whole colony from moving upwards, a mesh queen excluder is generally inserted into each hive. This acts as a physical barrier for the queen and prevents egg laying and the rearing of brood in the upper boxes. The response of the bees is to fill the boxes above the queen excluder with honey, which is later harvested by the beekeeper.
The second difference is that conventional hives are filled with frames fitted with foundation -sheets of wax or plastic impressed with the shape of worker cells and reinforced with thin wires. It is worth mentioning that one US study showed foundation to be contaminated with dozens of toxins from beekeeper treatments and agricultural pesticides.
One reason for using foundation impressed with worker cells is to prevent the bees from raising drones. Drones are male bees and are raised in special drone cells which are larger than the cells in which worker bees are raised. Drones do not gather honey and their production is seen as a waste of energy by the bees, energy that could otherwise go toward collecting honey. In fact, drones have a very important role to play in the production of healthy bee colonies, but more on this later.
Bee-centred hives of the sort preferred by the NBKT do not force a colony to expand upwards, nor do they involve the use of foundation. Rather, the bees are provided with simple top bars and allowed to build comb of their own choosing, in a downwards direction from the top bar. Not only does this make life simpler for the bees, it also makes it simpler, and less expensive, for the beekeeper.
Two examples of such hives are the Warré hive and the Einraumbeute or golden hive. A beautifully decorated example of the former is shown here. It is a vertical hive, in which additional boxes are placed under existing boxes, to allow for downwards expansion. The Einraumbeute is a deep horizontal hive. The depth of the hive allows for a degree of vertical expansion of the bee colony, but avoids the need for boxes to be lifted. Due to its depth, the Einraumbeute is used with frames, in which the bees build their own natural comb, as shown below. It is to be contrasted with the Kenyan top bar hive (often referred to as KTBH), which is a shallow horizontal hive and is not recommended by the NBKT for use in cool damp conditions such as prevail in the UK. The question of bee appropriate hives is discussed in more detail in this article on our blog. An article about the need of bees to build comb is presented on this Australian blog.
Both the Warré hive and the Einraumbeute use top cloths above the top bars. The bee colony covers these with propolis, as it does the interior of a hollow tree. Conventional beekeeping generally frowns upon the use by the bees of propolis on the basis that it gums up the hive and makes it difficult, or at least inconvenient, to take the hive apart. Neither the Kenyan top bar hive nor conventional hives use a top cloth.
The part of of a bee colony where young bees are raised is referred to as the broodnest and has a similar temperature to the body temperature of a mammal.
This fact, combined with the raising of young internally, and various other mammal-like characteristics, caused the biologist Jürgen Tautz in the prolog to The Buzz About Bees to propose that a honeybee colony is not only equivalent to a vertebrate, but in fact to a mammal, because it possesses many of the characteristics of mammals.
Moreover, Tautz follows the concept of Johannes Mehring (1815 - 1878) that:
"a bee colony is a single “being”, equivalent to a vertebrate animal. The worker bees represent the body organs necessary for maintenance and digestion, while the queen and drones represent the female and male genital organs."
Tautz describes the whole as a ‘superorganism’, a term coined for complex emergent unities, such as bee colonies, by the biologist William Morton Wheeler (1865 - 1937).
Seeing a bee colony as a single whole gives a very different perspective from seeing the colony as being ‘just a box of insects’, as conventional beekeepers are sometimes heard to remark. In the box of insects approach, the functional unity that exists between the parts of the colony is overlooked. Comb, queens and bees are seen as parts of a machine that can be swapped at will between one hive and another. The recipient hive recognises the 'transplant' as foreign and this causes physiological stress. While the immediate intent may be to 'strengthen' the hive for maximum honey production, long term stress weakens immune systems and increases the susceptibility of the hive to infection.
Moreover, if the whole is regarded as a warm-blooded quasi-mammal, one immediately sees the need for a dry and warm home environment in a way that is difficult to conceive when thinking of a box of insects. A bee colony maintains its internal temperature through shivering; specialist bees, called heater bees, are particularly good at this. One does not see the bees shivering, they do it internally using their wing muscles and burning honey as their energy source. The effect is the same as when a mammal shivers: heat is produced. Heat is key to raising young bees and research shows that the temperature at which bees are raised leaves lasting effects on them in later life. More information on nest scent and warmth is given here.
Apart from heating the brood area, various other bee activities produce heat. For example, heat is produced when the bees secrete wax and build honeycomb. In a tall thick-walled tree hollow, one can imagine the heat thus produced moving upwards through the colony by convection. The insulating properties of the thick walls will ensure that the heat is retained. Any excess is ventilated out of the entrance (generally located towards the bottom of the hollow) by bees fanning their wings. It is easy to imagine the bees evolving over the millennia to work with the natural flow of convection within the hive.
The Warré mentioned above is a vertical hive of limited cross section designed to mimic the heat retention and distribution capacities of a hollow tree. Shown here is an exploded view, courtesy of David Heaf. Note that the hive is topped with a quilt of wood shavings or similar to retain the colony heat.
Although it is possible to fit a quilt to a conventional hives, and this has been suggested in the past, one almost never sees such a thing today and certainly not in the bee supply catalogues. Maybe it’s that ‘insects in a box’ viewpoint coming through. By contrast, if one see the whole colony as being physiogically equivalent to a mammal - warm blooded - the need for heat retention becomes immediately apparent: how would you like to spend the winter in a thin-walled box with no roof insulation?
Seeing the bee organism as a warm-blooded whole also makes bee-centred beekeepers wary of frequent hive openings. They open hives only on those occasions when an external examination suggests that it is likely to be beneficial to the bees - a rare occurrence. By contrast, conventional hobbyist beekeepers are taught to thoroughly 'inspect' their hives frequently; once a week during the swarming season. This involves looking in detail at each and every comb, often shaking the bees off in the process, to check for and destroy queen cells such as the one shown below.
As a result, the internal conditions of the hive -such as heat, humidity, carbon dioxide and hormone balances- are all greatly disturbed or entirely lost. Frequent and intrusive hive opening is one area where commercial beekeepers sometimes have more in common with the bee-centred approach than with the conventional hobbyist; they simply do not have time for frequent detailed inspections.
The bee superorganism reproduces through a process termed swarming. Swarming starts when the bee colony forms special cells termed queen cells. Here is a partly developed queen cell viewed from below. Queen cells are vertical, rounded cells used only to raise new queens and are quite different in shape and orientation from the horizontal, hexagonal cells in which worker or drone bees are produced. As the queen in the queen cell starts to mature, the ‘old’ queen leaves the hive with a portion of the bees. This is the swarm. Tens of thousands of bees rush from the hive in a matter of seconds and form a huge sphere in the sky. After a while, the queen alights upon a branch or similar object and the bees cluster around her.
From this temporary resting place scout bees fly out to seek a new place of shelter - a new home. They report their findings to the clustered bees.
It is as this stage that the observant bee-centred beekeeper can ‘take’ the swarm and ‘run’ it into a new hive. This involves collecting the swarm and placing it on a board at the entrance of a new hive. If the scout bees from the swarm feel that the new hive is acceptable, the whole swarm moves in. Doing this is one of the most satisfying experiences a beekeeper can engage in; it is equivalent of being present at a birth.
By contrast, conventional beekeeping teaches that swarming is a nothing short of a nuisance and is to be ‘controlled’, or even eliminated. This seems an odd view; it is rather like a shepherd saying that they do not want lambs. Swarming is the method by which the bee reproduces in exactly the same way that lambs are the way in which sheep reproduce. Swarm suppression is often justified on the basis that it increases honey yields; but beekeepers who allow swarming and operate an extensive rather than an intensive beekeeping system dispute this. Moreover, bee-centred beekeepers are not generally honey-driven, seeing the bee as a pollinator first and provider of honey second.
The following swarm control methods are advocated by the BBKA:
Thorough inspections of the hive at least every 7 days during the swarming season of May and June, to search for queen cells. Any queen cells found are destroyed.To be fully effective, it is advocated that the bees be shaken from their combs. This is a stressful activity for both the beekeeper and the bees, causing considerable disruption to the orderliness of the hive. Not surprisingly, many beekeepers find themselves unable to adhere to such a regime. If a queen cell goes unnoticed, the colony swarms in any event and the disruption has been wasted.
The wings of all queens are cut (the euphemism is ‘clipped’) to prevent the queen from flying with any swarm that does issue. Since the inspection regime often fails, conventional teaching often insists that clipping a queen’s wings is an essential part of swarm control: beginner beekeepers are required to show proficiency in this aspect of beekeeping if they wish to pass the BBKA exams. They are encouraged to practice the technique on drones.
Even wing clipping is not fail safe. It merely buys time. The queen, unable to fly, falls into the grass and the swarm returns to the hive, often in an agitated state, or else assembles around the stranded queen on the ground. As soon as a new queen (complete with wings) emerges from her queen cell, the hive will swarm again; this time successfully. So the beekeeper has to intervene before this happens and apply further management techniques, often dividing the colony into two: which is exactly what the bees were trying to do in the first place.
Natural beekeepers are sometimes castigated for allowing uncontrolled swarming; allowing their swarms to fly off to take up residence in roofs and disused chimneys. As we have seen, no method of swarm control is fully bee-proof and conventional beekeepers most certainly lose swarms; even if they are loath to admit it. Indeed, if they are relying on swarm control, they may not even be aware of losing swarms. By contrast, the natural beekeeper will look out for swarms. They will keep a close eye on their bees during the swarming season and, with experience, will know when they are about to swarm.
In addition, they will place bait hives, such as that shown here, and other attractants to encourage the swarm to stick around rather than decamp to a nearby roof.
In other words, they will work with the bees rather than against them. The active swarm seeker also works with their neighbours and local community, who thus become engaged with bees and swarms, seeing them as natural, and desirable, rather than as a scene from a Hollywood horror film. Rarely are swarms anything other than placid; unlike an established colony, they have no honey stores to defend.
Further information on the important topic of swarming can be found here.
Artificial Reproduction and Queen Breeding
Even some beekeepers who term themselves natural engage in some of the following practices, although it is unlikely that anyone who terms themselves bee-centred would do so, as what follows is anything but bee-centred. One might also conclude that it is anything but natural!
The natural process of bee reproduction has been outlined above. It starts with that special cell, the queen cell. Artificial reproduction eschews the queen cell as the starting point and begins with an egg or young larva from a worker cell; that is an egg or larva that has started its life with the aim of becoming a worker bee. The logic is that both worker bees and queen bees are female and that the former can thus be tricked into becoming the latter. This misses the point that the bees could themselves just as easily convert a worker egg or larva into a queen if they so wished but, under normal circumstances, they do not. They go to the trouble of creating nascent queen cells (called queen cups) into which the queen lays an egg directly. One might suspect that there is a reason for this.
However, the bee colony has a rather special emergency repair mechanism that it can call on in times of dire need. No need is more dire than the sudden loss of a queen; there is generally only one in each hive and without a queen, a hive will slowly perish.
Conventional beekeeping routinely uses this emergency repair mechanism as a means of producing more bee colonies. Perhaps not surprisingly, this goes hand in hand with suppressing natural reproduction by swarming.
The simplest way to trigger the emergency repair process is to divide a colony into two (a so-called split). Half the colony will then be without a queen and will react by converting an egg or larva that was destined to become a worker bee into one that becomes a queen bee. In physical terms, the bees tear down the worker cell and construct a queen cell around the egg or larva within, thus raising an emergency queen.
A beekeeper can go further than this, however and trick a colony into raising many queens using this emergency queen production process. This is what so-called queen-breeders do. The queens produced are mated and sold to other beekeepers. They may be sold as queens in cages, or as ‘nucs’ or as packages. Nucs (short for nuclei) are small colonies. The bees in the colony may not be related to the queen; frequently she will have been ‘introduced’ shortly before the nuc is sold. Packages are not common in the UK, but in a package, the bees are most certainly not related to the queen and are generally not related to each other, having been shaken together from several colonies. Unsuspecting purchasers probably view a package as equivalent to a swarm, which it most certainly is not. In a swarm all the bees are related to each other and to the queen that accompanies them.
The purchasers of caged queens are often beekeepers who have run into problems adhering to the rigorous swarm control procedures mentioned above. They buy new queens because they believe that young queens are less likely to swarm. So they replace the queens in their hives every year with a new one. They may also buy queens because they believe a new queen will give more honey or because they have heard that such and such a strain of bee is just right for them.
The fact remains, whether the purchase is of a nuc, a package or a caged queen, the queens concerned were never destined to be queens when laid as an egg. They are a product of a change of mind forced on the bees by the action of the beekeeper: hence the comment that the entire procedure is anything but natural.
Matters do not end there, however. Queen breeders are under pressure to produce queens with ‘desirable’ characteristics. Amongst the characteristics that are sought after by beekeepers are docility, prolific honey gathering, limited use of propolis (remember that gluey stuff that is good for bees but most inconvenient when performing those weekly inspections to look for queen cells), colour and the pattern of veins in bees’ wings. Setting aside the question of whether these characteristics are good for the bees (as opposed to the beekeeper), how does one ensure that the queens one produces have them?
Queens mate on the wing and the progeny they produce -the bees that make up the hive- result from a combination of the queen’s genes with those of a drone (male bees). Virgin queens mate with a dozen or more drones and store the sperm in a special sack for use during their lifetime. Queens will not mate with closely related drones and outbreeding seems essential in maintaining health and vigour in bee colonies.
Queen breeders may flood an area with selected drones in an attempt to influence the mating of their queens or they may go further and inseminate their queens with a machine. The latter requires anaesthetic (for the queen), a microscope and highly specialised micro-manipulating equipment.
For those interested, here is a training video for the procedure.
Whether the area is flooded with drones or the queens are machine inseminated, practical constraints on the number and variation in drones used by the queen breeder mean that the hapless queen is unlikely to be inseminated by the same spread of drones as she would mate with naturally. In other words, in comparison with a queen freely mated under natural conditions, she will be inbred.
Over time, queen breeders tend to see a decline in vigour in their queens and have to bring in fresh stock to restore vigour to their breeding lines. It can be argued that the decline in the vigour of bees generally is due, at least in part, to inbreeding over many generations. For example, in the US it is said that most commercially available queens originate from only a handful of large-scale queen breeders. A queen produced by these procedures will have a paint blob applied to her back for identification and will likely have part of one wing cut off to prevent the colony of which she is part from ever swarming, ie reproducing naturally. So the cycle continues.
Pests and Diseases
The most common pest that affects bees around large parts of the world is the parasitic varroa mite. This mite originates in Southeast Asia. The bees that live there are closely related to the honeybee we are used to in the west. The honeybees of the Southeast Asia live quite happily with varroa. Varroa jumped species to the western honey bee some time in the mid 20th century when beekeepers transported western honey bees to the Far East. Varroa found it could survive in colonies of the western honey bee, but colonies of the western honey bee found they could not survive with varroa. This frequently happens when a parasite or disease jumps species and it takes a while for a new balance to be established. In the meantime, losses can be high. Gradually the mite has spread around most of the world, helped greatly by the international trade in bees.
Varroa mites feed on the blood (‘haemolymph’) of bee pupae and adult bees. This weakens the bee and also transmits viruses to it. These viruses are thought to be a major cause of the collapse of bee colonies that are heavily infested with varroa. Beekeepers attempt to control the level of varroa in their bee colonies by using various chemical treatments, ranging from ‘hard’ treatments’ through to ‘soft’ ones. The hard treatments include wax soluble insecticides such as fluvalinate (‘apistan’) or coumaphos (sheep dip). Softer treatments include essential oils and icing sugar, and organic acids, such as oxalic acid or formic acid. The hard treatments are often avoided by beekeepers who do not like the idea of putting wax soluble insecticides into a beehive that contains both wax (the honey comb) and insects (the bees). Studies in the US have shown that beeswax is extensively contaminated with miticides (as well as all sorts of other toxins used in farms and horticulture). Deleterious effects on bees can occur through the use of both hard and soft treatments, especially if administered incorrectly. Nevertheless, it is the official preference in the UK that bees should be treated for mites and the vast majority of both conventional and natural beekeepers do so: but not all.
In the UK, many beekeepers who do not treat find something that goes against accepted wisdom: not all their colonies die. Data collected in one area of Wales over 5 years indicates that colony deaths are the same, or lower, in untreated colonies when compared with treated ones. The sample size is large, covering an average of over 250 colonies a year. One can see that, as the news about the efficacy of treatment, or the lack of it, has spread, so the number of treaters has fallen. A video on the subject of going treatment-free is here and some thoughts from others are here and here.
This prompts the question: why do not all beekeepers seek to get off the chemical beekeeping treadmill and stop treating? The answer has as much to do with psychology as biology. A lot of beekeepers treat ‘just in case’. However, ‘just in case’ has a downside. The Welsh data referred to above is supported by research that indicates that bees as well as varroa are adversely affected by varroa treatments. One well known conventional beekeeper who lives near Swindon and looks after as many as 80 colonies gave up treating because he became convinced that queen fertility was suffering due to the treatments. He had a choice: continue treating and keep losing colonies due to queen failures, or stop treating and see what happened. He decided to try the latter. To his great surprise, not only did he not lose all his bees, but of those that survived, some colonies flourished. Since then he has remained treatment-free. On the day I visited him a few years ago, he could not find any varroa in his bee hives to show me! He sources his bees from swarms thrown by wild colonies, the reason being that such colonies have not been treated and, if the bees are thriving enough to throw swarms, they have at least a degree of varroa tolerance. Research on the island of Gotland (in the Baltic sea) and near Avignon shows that, even in the most unpropitious circumstances, bees develop varied mechanisms that allow them to control the varroa population in their hives. I myself have not treated any of my hives for a number of years. Between my own hives and those of other non-treatment beekeepers that I know well, I can count between one and two hundred untreated hives that have varroa losses that are at completely acceptable levels.
Experience shows that varroa tolerant bees, if allowed to open mate with little or no control over the drones they encounter are quite capable of passing varroa tolerance to their offspring. Recent work at Sussex University supports this finding. Yet, non-treating beekeepers are regularly decried as being spreaders of varroa from their ‘infected’ colonies. In reality, non-treating beekeepers whose colonies are healthy are doing their neighbours a favour; they are providing a source of drones that are available to spread varroa tolerant genes to queens from their neighbours’ hives. Except, as we have seen, many conventional beekeepers do not allow their queens to open mate; they buy queens from queen breeders already mated. So the mechanism by which varroa tolerance could be spread is stifled. Here is confirmation from recent research on the subject.
This mechanism is further stifled by some of the practices used by treatment beekeepers in their management regimes; practices such as drone culling. In drone culling, hives are opened on a regular basis and drone pupae are mechanically removed from the brood area and destroyed.
This is done because varroa reproduce preferentially in drone brood. However, it will be recalled that conventional beekeeping uses worker foundation in hives to suppress drone production. So, to make drone culling effective, the beekeeper must first insert some drone foundation into the hive. This then acts as a trap for the varroa mites, who are attracted to the drone brood… which the beekeeper later destroys. However, if one has bees that are naturally varroa tolerant, the ejection of infected drone pupae happens naturally - the bees do it for themselves. What is more, healthy drone pupae are left to develop into adult drones and are available to mate with queens, passing on their genes, all with no input from the beekeeper. In comparison, drone culling is a blunt instrument that involves a lot of work.
Conventional beekeepers who seek large harvests of honey, or who have early pollination contracts stimulate their bees early in the spring by feeding sugar syrup. The effect of this is that the queen starts laying earlier than would be the case under normal circumstances and the colony grows rapidly. A rapidly growing colony has lots of brood and, since it is in brood cells that varroa reproduce, lots of varroa too. The same beekeeper may well follow up with drone culling to reduce the varroa population that has been stimulated by the feeding of sugar syrup. One can see why a certain commercial beekeeper, who was also a bee inspector, was heard to comment that ‘varroa is a problem of forced bees’.
There are two diseases that affect the brood of honey bees: European and American Foulbrood. Generally abbreviated to EFB and AFB, the names have nothing to do with where the diseases occur. Of the two, AFB is regarded as the more problematic because the causative bacterium forms spores that are both extremely long lived and extremely tolerant of cleaning agents. Both EFB and AFB are notifiable in the UK: the law requires that their suspected presence be reported to the appropriate authority.
As with the varroa mite, natural beekeepers are often regarded as a source of infection for these two diseases. This viewpoint rests on two assumptions: that natural beekeepers are ignorant of the health of their colonies and that natural beekeeping per se promotes unhealthy bees. The second of these two assumptions rests on the fallacy that bees need constant beekeeper input to remain healthy. We have already seen that, in the case of conventional beekeeping, as taught by the BBKA, constant input actually means constant disruption and stress. EFB in particular is known to manifest when a colony is stressed. Adding beekeeper induced stress to the mix can only make matters worse. Doubtless, conventional beekeepers would argue that their methods do not cause stress but, as we have seen, the prescriptive regimes advocated by many of them ignore such vast amounts of bee biology that one is tempted to wonder if they would even recognise a stressed bee colony.
This leaves the first objection, that natural beekeepers are ignorant of the health status of their colonies. The thought behind this is that all natural beekeepers leave their hives completely alone and never look at them. Beekeeping that leaves bees completely alone might be better termed bee conservation rather than bee keeping: it rests on the viewpoint that honeybees are a wild (rather than domesticated) creature. As such, they should be treated like similar species; if one puts out nest boxes for wild birds it is not necessary (and may even be harmful) to then inspect them for disease. The same approach is applied to bees. Whilst some will disagree, this seems a valid viewpoint in its own terms, ie that honeybees are a native wild species, at least in the UK.
Turning to those beekeepers who wish to interact with their bees to a greater degree than the bee conservators, there are degrees of observation that can be employed to determine the health of a colony. The first is to observe acutely the activity at the hive entrance. Hives with observation windows allow a second degree of observation. With experience one soon ascertains when a colony is less active than would expected for the season. This might lead to a more intrusive inspection of a colony. The Sun Hive, Warré hive and Einraumbeute are all designed to allow a full inspection if deemed appropriate. This can include a comb by comb examination. In this regard, therefore, with appropriate care, a hive kept naturally can be inspected to just the same extent as a conventional hive. It is worth noting that the internal construction of a conventional hive can make it very difficult to inspect if left untended for a year or two (a not infrequent situation) due to the number of wooden surfaces that become glued together with propolis. The internal construction of a Sun Hive, Warré or Einraumbeute makes this much less of a problem.
Harvesting Honey and Feeding Sugar
Even hobbyist conventional beekeepers are encouraged to harvest the maximum amount of honey. Data is collected and published each year by beekeeping associations that measures the average honey yield per hive and high yields are seen as a mark of successful beekeeping. ‘How much honey do you get?’ becomes the yardstick by which beekeeping prowess is measured. Of course, not all get drawn into this competition, but many do. They take as much honey as they possibly can and substitute sugar water as winter feed. Sugar water is seen as equivalent to honey. Yet it is anything but. Honey contains many dozens of micro-nutrients that are not present in sugar water. It also has a higher acidity. Photomicrographs of the stomachs of bees fed on sugar water look very different from bees fed on honey. Whereas the latter are plump and shiny, the former are small and shrivelled. Yet one hears it said that sugar and honey are equivalent!
Concomitant with feeding sugar water to replace honey taken by the beekeeper is the feeding of sugar water to stimulate non-seasonal growth of bee colonies. Not only does this cause the bees to get out of synchrony with their natural environment, as mention above, it has the effect of stimulating varroa growth too. The result is stressed bees and a high varroa load.
Bee-centred beekeeping carefully assesses the amount of honey present in a colony and only harvests that which is genuinely surplus, leaving the bees plenty of honey to survive the winter. For an inexperienced beekeeper, it is always wise to err on the side of caution and leave more honey rather than less until one knows one’s bees and local climate. Sugar water is only fed in poor summers when bees would otherwise starve and it is generally supplemented to make to it more akin to nectar in its chemistry and nutrient content.
Bee-centred beekeepers aim to have bees that are well adapted to their local environment. In the UK, this means bees with a high proportion of native bee in their genes. Sub species of bee imported from other European countries come from different climates and are less suited than our native bees to our rather wet maritime climate. Yet the belief that imported bees are ‘better’ still persists and bees are imported in great numbers every year. This is one area where many conventional beekeepers agree with bee-centred beekeepers. The official policy of the BBKA is to 'discourage' imports, yet those at the upper levels of the hierarchy seem disinclined to seek the enforcement of such a rule.
In those countries where the bee is not native, the need to have a bee that is well adapted to the local climate is still relevant. Shipping bees each year across huge distances from locations that have a completely different climate makes no sense: far better to stick to locally bred bees that are adapted to their local conditions.
Then there is the issue of pest and diseases. When bees are shipped around the world, pests and diseases travel with them. Varroa is a classic example of a pest that has spread around the world with imported bees.
In conclusion, one could say that the practice of conventional, chemically supported beekeeping largely relies on exploiting the bee superorganism’s tremendous plasticity - the very quality that has made possible the specie’s survival over millennia. Yet all plasticity has its limits and those of the bee have been reached and surpassed, as reflected in the bees’ dismal situation today.
It is well past time that we returned to the basic biology of this wonderful creature and started to care for it in a manner that supports it for the long term, rather than exploits it in the short term. Only then will we bring the bee back to the vibrancy the bee deserves and the world needs.