Learning from Wild Bees
This article first appeared in The Beekeepers Quarterly, issue 123, 2016
Natural Beekeeping Trust - Trustee
Tree Beekeeping International - Member
What if there was a completely different approach to beekeeping? Where the beekeeper makes a hive that suits the bees, or they do not come. A system where the beekeeper is required to give up control and complexity, and evolution is once again determined by the bees and nature.
I have written many articles about tree beekeeping, and could easily write another about this ancient form of beekeeping. However, I feel strongly that I need to go deeper into the subject and explain why I believe tree hives are one of the most inspiring hives, particularly in the context of the environmental challenges that bees face in the 21st century.
As I prepared to write this article I was aware of the brief, which included discussing the dimensions and methods used in tree beekeeping. This raised a small voice in my head which argued that if I simply gave a description of the history, dimensions and methods of tree beekeeping I would be ignoring the transformation this form of bee hive has had on me, not only as a beekeeper, but also as a human being. And ignoring this would be a disservice to the bees and their message. Therefore, if this article simply gives you more intellectual knowledge about tree beekeeping, or gives you more ideas for the next beekeeping experiment, then I will have failed. We live in a world saturated with knowledge and technology but I fear it is lacking in wisdom. Having kept bees as a child in the 1970s, I have seen in the short space of 40 years the decline of forage, the drop in queen fertility, and the vitality of bees being eroded.
The evolutionary path of the bee is a story of imperceptible change over millions of years, where bees slowly evolved to fit each locality - or devolved to end broken relationships with the environment. Then, in a mere 150 years, a blink in time, under the stewardship of a new master, “modern beekeeping” together with the pressure of modern agriculture, the old order that shaped bees was washed away. We have taken control, but are we smarter? The bees have always selected on the basis of survival of the fittest, whilst we select on simpler parameters like honey yield and temperament. Add to that swarm suppression, bee importation, artificial splits, prophylactic use of antibiotics, sugar feeding, and migration, and we have woven a tangled and confused evolutionary path that has no direction for bees and is alien to their genetic history.
What if there was a completely different approach to beekeeping? Where the beekeeper makes a hive that suits the bees or they do not come. Where the density of hives is set by the bees, and there is no intervention to stimulate the hive or save it from failure. A system where the beekeeper is required to give up control and complexity, and evolution is once again determined by the bees and nature. A hive that can last a hundred years or more and cost nothing. This is not the fantasy of a dreamy idealistic beekeeper, but an old Eastern European traditional form of beekeeping called tree beekeeping, where a hive cavity is formed inside a living tree.
History of Tree Beekeeping
Whilst the history of tree beekeeping does not span the millions of years of the bees’ history, it can claim to be one of the oldest forms of beekeeping and one that perhaps most closely respects the innate preference of bees. Tree beekeeping can trace its roots back over 1000 years to Eastern European monks who provided the first written account of tree beekeeping in 900 CE. A Russian tomb from the 5th century was found to contain a complete set of tree beekeeping tools, and a preserved tree hive was recovered from the Older river dating to around the 10th century. In 940 King Otto I allowed tree beekeeping within the Teltowsche Heide (Grunewald forest, Berlin), but the last Zeidler (German tree beekeeper) gave up in 1550.
In the seventeenth century tree beekeeping saw its maximum development in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In the most developed regions tree beekeepers formed communities, called 'Fratrum Mellocidarum', and members would manage registered areas of the forest called a 'bartny bór', a basic unit area of forest with 60 tree hives. They were bound by oaths, with their own laws and later some political power. A wealthy tree beekeeper could own/lease as many as 400 hives. Unusually for the time these organisations allowed women to inherit tree hives after the death of their father or husband. It was an important branch of the economy; profits from wax and honey could be 30 times higher than from wood. Tree hives belonged to kings, princes and cities, and tree hive keepers had a right to an inheritable timeless lease of the tree hives. In return beekeepers would pay tax in the form of hive products, wax and honey, tending meadows and, later, money. Historically, there was another advantage to the tree and bee relationship, most notably in Poland where there was legal protection and severe punishments preventing the felling of trees containing hives, and protection of the hive from robbery.
From the mid 19th century the economies of wood and honey changed. Wood became more important to fuel war and industrial development. Legal bans on tree beekeeping were imposed by the rulers of Austria, Prussia and Russia to make way for the felling of the trees. However, even after some decline, the Polish census of 1827 recorded over 70,000 tree hives. In Belarus there are still more than 800-1000 log hives in trees, but only a few tree cavities with bees. In the Polish Bielowieza National Park there are still 112 tree hive cavities, made before an 1888 ban when the forest was declared the Russian Tsar’s private property.These hives are now open, their entrances are closing and they have no bees. The last Bielowieza tree beekeeper, Filimon Waszkiewicz, died in 1967.
Gradually, for the convenience of beekeepers, tree hives migrated to log hives on platforms, then to logs on the ground, and then, with the start of modern beekeeping, to thin walled hives with frames. With modern commercial beekeeping also came sugar, antibiotics, genetic dilution, migratory beekeeping and dense apiaries.
Tomek demonstrates traditional tree climbing method with leziwo
Renaissance of Tree Beekeeping
The tree hive tradition in Eastern Europe was all but lost by the 1930s.Then in 2002, Dr Hartmut Jungius and Dr Przemysław (Przemek) Nawrocki of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) discovered tree beekeeping still being practiced in the Southern Urals of Bashkortostan, Russia, while they were setting up a 22,000 hectare woodland nature reserve. Over 700 hives can be found here, of which, in an average year, 30% are naturally populated by swarms and managed by the Bashkir.
We know how traditional tree hives are constructed, using knowledge gathered from the Bashkir together with historical information from countries such as Germany and Poland.
The majority of tree hives are created in pine trees that are typically older than 150 years; larch is another common tree, and to a lesser extent oak, fir and spruce. First, the crown of the tree is removed so that the tree grows in girth. Traditionally, after a further 70 years, the third generation of tree beekeeper makes the hive. Ideally the tree needs to be at least 80 cm in diameter. The family line then manages the hive for 200-300 years. When done correctly, the tree is not harmed; indeed, it is believed that making the cavity invigorates the tree.
In this tree hive management system, the top one third is respected and always left undisturbed for raising brood and for winter stores. If there is any spare honey it is harvested from the bottom two thirds of the hive. Typically 10 -15kg is harvested in a normal year. The hives are opened just twice a year: once in spring to check if the hive is populated, and then in the autumn for the honey harvest. This infrequent opening maintains the medicinal hive atmosphere.
The hives are not treated for mites with acid washes or pesticides and yet remain healthy. Interestingly, many beekeepers in the West, often referred to as ‘natural beekeepers’, are similarly discovering that bees will slowly adjust to mites and diseases. They can only do so if they are left to manage themselves, i.e. they are rarely disturbed, their winter honey stores are left intact, and they are not fed sugar, which weakens the bees’ immunity (1).
Tree hives naturally populate at a density of three hives per 1km2; however this varies greatly depending on the weather. In good years almost all the Bashkir hives will fill with bees, but in very poor years only 10% may have bees. The low density of hives greatly reduces the problem of disease spread whilst matching forage level to bee density. By allowing the weather to test the bees, the weak colonies fail and only strong colonies propagate their genetics. Tree hives being static allow bees to build long term bonds and connections between the environment and other colonies.
Construction Of Tree Hives
We can now look in detail at the construction and dimensions of a hive, but remember this is tree beekeeping and the dimensions are approximate. I like to use my hands and limbs to do the measurements, and if you see me hug a tree in the forest, I’m probably measuring it ... and giving it some love!
Construction of a tree hive starts with a slot that forms the ‘human entrance’ to the hive, at 4-5 m from the ground. The slot is typically 800-900 cm long and 12 cm wide. The internal diameter of the hive is around 35 cm and has a volume of approximately 80-90 litres. This leaves thick walls of at least 5 cm to insulate the hive. A cavity is normally left open for a year to let the wood season. When the hive is occupied, the bees will gradually cover the walls with protective propolis. A slot door of similar thickness to the walls and with insulating foliage completes the hive’s human entrance. The bees’ entrance is located one third of the way from the top of the hive, by forming a 8cm x 8cm hole that is positioned approximately 20 cm away from the human entrance.
A carving axe is used to create a long tailed plug that fits inside the entrance hole leaving two vertical 1cm x 8cm slots either side of the plug. The tail of the plug goes into the cavity and marks the point above which the beekeeper must never disturb the colony. Honey may be harvested below the tail of the entrance plug. Inside the cavity two sets of two spales are arranged in a cross that fit above and below the entrance plug.
Each spale is approximately 1 cm x 0.8 cm x 40 cm and pointed at the ends. The length is adjusted to be a tight fit inside the cavity with the pointed ends digging into the side walls. Spales are not necessary if the hive is not harvested for honey.
The final internal components are eight thin hardwood spikes used to fix 8 cm x 8 cm bait comb to the top of the hive. Personally I prefer to call it ‘welcome comb’, as we are not trapping the bees for collection, instead we are inviting them to stay. The welcome comb is arranged to encourage the bees to build comb parallel to the door, which simplifies inspection.
The final internal components are eight thin hardwood spikes used to fix 8 cm x 8 cm bait comb to the top of the hive. Personally I prefer to call it ‘welcome comb’, as we are not trapping the bees for collection, instead we are inviting them to stay. The welcome comb is arranged to encourage the bees to build comb at right angles to the door opening, which simplifies inspection.
The traditional tools for hollowing out the hive include: hand forged adze, round scorp and heavy duty chisel/lever. A carving axe is used to make the internal components and this also doubles as a hive tool. More recently, tree beekeepers use chainsaws to speed up the process of making the hive and working platform. The process takes one to two days.
The final stage is to add the tree beekeeper’s family mark on the tree. In Bashkir this is called a tamga, and historically in Poland, a signum (more recently it is called 'ciosno' and 'znamię'). This is cut into the bark at the base of the tree. The mark shows ownership, and was once also used for tax collecting purposes. ￼￼￼￼￼
Comparisons Between Wild Colonies and Managed Colonies
But just how well do tree hives match the natural preferences of bees? What would bees do if we did nothing at all? Only when we know this can we judge if our interventions are supporting them or not. For more understanding, we therefore look to the bees in the wild and how they live.
The study of bees in the wild is difficult and there are very few large traditional non-commercial forests with large trees. Additionally, spotting a colony high in a tree in a forest is hard, and studying one is even harder. However, there are useful studies on bees in Arnot Forest (USA) by Prof Thomas Seeley (2) and others which provide some possible benchmarks.
In one of his lectures in Switzerland in 2015, Professor Seeley outlined differences between how wild bees live compared with those in a typical apiary, as shown in the table below. I have included a tree beekeeping hive column and additional parameters, though I appreciate not all the apiary traits are common to all beekeepers.
(Differences to natural hive are in orange)
Clearly there are many differences between tree hives in the wild and their ground based apiary cousins, but do these affect the health and vitality of the bee?
Professor Seeley firmly believes the attributes of natural tree hives have a measurable and significant positive effect on hive health. The Arnot Forest bees he studied had adapted to the deadly varroa mite, and no signs of foul brood diseases were found in forest studies spanning 33 years. In one of Seeley’s studies, inspired by forest bees, he recommended apiary hives be spaced much wider: at 10m, to reduce transfer of disease.
But could more extensive tree beekeeping with its minimal inspection or the introduction of unmanaged tree hives be a problem for conventional apiaries?
Catherine Thompson’s 2014 paper on “Parasite Pressures on Feral Bees” touches on this concern. However it showed established feral bee colonies apparently able to tolerate high values of deformed wing virus (DWV) that would normally lead to colony mortality [feral is used to describe likely escaped swarms from apiaries, though I prefer the term “wild” and will use that from now on]. This tolerance may be related to the work of Gideon et al  (3) on DWV and ‘superinfection exclusion’, in which they highlight honeybees, varroa and DWV reaching a stable state by natural selection.
Papers by Miller 1935 (4), Bailey 1958 (5), and Goodwin 1994 (6) all indicate that wild bees do better than managed colonies concerning disease, and the main threat to wild colonies are local dense populations of poorly managed colonies. This may not be a surprise when we consider that horizontal transfer of pathogens, not seen in wild hives, is common in beekeeping. We also know that the microbiota of honey bees can be damaged for several decades by the use of antibiotics (7) . Furthermore, it is well established that the effects of sugar on the gut of bees compromises their immune system (1).
In the UK it is likely that many conventional apiaries already exist close to wild hives; in the Andover (Wiltshire, UK) locale alone there are reportedly over 80 wild bee sites, many house strong colonies continuously inhabiting their hive for many years.
So, there is a picture emerging of wild colonies retaining vitality through normal selective pressure. The fear that they are a potential pathogen reservoir is not borne out by studies, or anecdotal evidence. Furthermore, Gideon’s and Seeley’s research has shown that natural selective pressure uncompromised by treatments and alien inputs has been a positive to bee health and created an important genetic reservoir. It has worked for millions of years, and rather than shun this natural wisdom, we could do well to embrace it by creating tree hives.
With the resilience of wild bees in mind, it is no wonder that tree beekeeping has caught the imagination of many beekeepers across Europe. The Natural Beekeeping Trust (8), Gaiabees (9) and Free The Bees (10) promote tree hives, and new organisations such as Bractwo Bartne (11) and Tree Beekeeping International (12) have formed to teach tree hive making and tree beekeeping skills. Additionally, tree beekeeping is being used to protect four different races of dark bees (Northern, Augustowska, Kampinoska and Asta) in Polish forests and, in Bashkortostan, tree beekeeping is bringing additional income to the local community. In Germany, habitat forestry initiatives are attempting to increase forest biodiversity by incorporating tree beekeeping.
I believe that tree hives, which draw closely from the innate preferences of the bees in the wild, can offer new directions to apiculture. Recent hive designs, such as those by Lazutin, Somerville and Haverson (13) , have mimicked the high insulating properties of tree hives. This is supported by the work of Mitchell (14). Increasing numbers of beekeepers are rejecting treatment of bees, and the practice of leaving enough honey for overwintering bees and rejecting the use of sugar is becoming more common.
￼￼For me, a narrow focus on apiculture misses the full inspiration of trees and bees. Bees have suffered from catastrophic loss of quality non-toxic forage, genetic and mechanical manipulation. To restore vitality, bees need our support and creating tree hives is a way to do this, particularly if not harvested for honey. Extensive networks of tree hives, including those in protected habitat forests, can provide an environment for bees, free from human intrusion and economic imperatives. After more than a century of continuously taking from bees, there is a strong need to redress the balance. Tree hives, which respect and focus on the needs of the bees, provide a new direction.
Author: Jonathan Powell
Trustee of The Natural Beekeeping Trust
Member of Tree Beekeeping International
My thanks to Piotr Piłasiewicz of Bractwo Bartne for many of the pictures in this article.
1. Johnson 2012:
3. Gideon 2015:
4. Miller 1935: Natural comb building. Canadian. Bee J. 43(8) : 216-217
5. Bailey 1958: Wild honeybees and disease. Bee World 39, 93-95
6. Goodwin 1994: Incidence of American foulbrood infections in feral honey bee colonies in New Zealand. NZ J. Zool. 21 285-287
7. Tian 2012:
8. Natural Beekeeping Trust:
10. Free The Bees:
11. Bractwo Bartne Foundation:
12. Tree Beekeeping International:
13. Somerville & Haverson:
14. Mitchell 2015:
This article was first published in Beekeepers Quarterly Issue 123, 2016