Why Care about Honey Bees?
The laying path of the queen bee after Gerstung
"From the above cross-sections through the brood nest we can see with absolute certainty how the whole Bien is really the young bee, the brood, an entity that is tightly organised according to strict natural laws, a wonderful structure in which each cell has its proper place, not only each food cell that surrounds the brood, but also each cell within the brood itself, and how much more each comb occupies its proper place. Once you have examined and understood this marvellous and wonderful brood nest organisation, once you have recognised that the whole existence and development of the Bien depends on this organisation, as we shall show later, you will acquire a deep respect towards this organisation of the 'innermost sanctum of the Bien', and no longer let yourself make unnecessary, brutal or barbaric intrusions into it. Instead, you will shudder to think how nowadays the brood is treated, how someone who thinks himself the greatest master-beekeeper maltreats the brood nest in the most careless way."
Ferdinand Gerstung, Der Bien und seine Zucht
(The Bee and its Cultivation) 1905
A flower-filled bee garden
Those wishing to explore further the science that underpins this article are referred to our searchable database of scientific papers.
"The Natural Beekeeping Trust provides an invaluable model of how we human beings can best live in harmony with honeybeeings. Ever inspiring and encouraging"
As a species, the Western honey bee, Apis mellifera, is under considerable stress throughout large parts of the world. This is due to a number of factors, including environmental degradation and the ubiquitous use of toxic agrochemicals. A third factor, that receives less publicity, is beekeeper-induced stress. The honey bee is essentially a wild creature with a complex life cycle. While it is happy to live in close proximity to man, it cannot be treated as other domestic animals, such as sheep or cows.
Modern beekeeping methods can be highly intrusive and disruptive of colony function. The result of this excessive interference in bees, over more than a century, is now evident in a marked decrease in the vigour of bee populations around the world.
In response to what has now become a critical situation -both of the honeybee and the natural world as a whole- growing numbers of people, beekeepers and others, are questioning forms of honeybee husbandry which rely, as does most of modern agriculture, on chemical solutions to man-made problems. There are no insecticides or pesticides which are truly safe for bees - this includes those introduced to hives in modern beekeeping.
However, as we collectively question conventional approaches to nature in general and bees in particular, holistic practices are gaining ground. The Natural Beekeeping Trust promotes chemical-free sustainable bee-centred methods of caring for bees; methods that look at the creature in the round, taking into account its context in its local ecosystem.
For an example of the success of this new approach, we can look at the parasite Varroa destructor. The Western honey bee suffers from this mite throughout its range. Conventional beekeeping attempts to control the mite through the use of in-hive chemicals and other beekeeper actions. Yet around the UK and further afield, scientists and beekeepers are discovering that, left in peace, honey bee populations can in fact cope naturally with the varroa mite without the need for interference by the beekeeper.
Outside the hive, forage conditions for all bees are compromised in large parts of the world where neonicotinoids are applied. 'Neonics' are insecticides, introduced in the 1990's, that are water-soluble and accumulate in the soil. According to the latest research they are spreading throughout nature, causing damage to non-target insects and bird populations. This migration of neonics throughout the environment means that even the prohibition of their use on 'bee-friendly' crops does not avoid the problem. They are everywhere, including the conservation margins that farmers plant around field edges.
Bees were held sacred in all ancient cultures. Their survival was assured over thousands of years. In the last 150 years this has changed dramatically. Almost all of modern beekeeping, like intensive farming, is geared to maximum production. This invariably results in exploitation, as the essential needs of bees and other animals are disregarded. In addition, international trading in bees and queens has resulted in the importation of exotic pests and diseases and research is now raising concern over the effects on native pollinators of both intensive beekeeping practice and also the international bumblebee trade.
Turning to honey bee genetics, the routine suppression of bees’ natural reproduction (by swarming) in favour of artificial breeding has been practised for more than a hundred years. Honey bees need genetic diversity to be healthy. While inbred bees may have desirable traits in terms of honey production, they depend on constant beekeeper medications in an attempt to prop up their health. These efforts are clearly failing as bee colonies still die in huge numbers.
In response, the beekeeping industry, concerned for its survival, calls for ever more research to provide answers to the crisis: someone must do something. That call has now been answered, and the answer may displease some, for leading scientists say it is beekeepers themselves who need to change. They recognise that we, as beekeepers, have failed in our attempts to interfere. It is time for bees to be left in peace to sort out their own problems. Scientists have even coined a new term to describe this approach: Darwinian Beekeeping.
This confirms what has long been clear to us in the Natural Beekeeping Trust: the stresses put upon bees through honey-driven, mechanistic beekeeping can only be remedied by putting the needs of the bees first, without compromise. The environmental problems which bees and all forms of life now face as a result of the accelerating destruction of the natural world, the loss of habitat, the toxicity of agricultural practice, and so forth, are huge and must be urgently addressed.
Fortunately, it lies in the nature of the honeybee to respond to crises in unique and inspiring ways. More and more people feel called upon to engage with bees in ways more attentive and sympathetic to the intrinsic needs of the species. People's awareness of the urgent need to adopt more nature-friendly practices is growing, in beekeeping as well as in horticulture and agriculture. The UK’s major beekeeping charity has been reluctant to provide clear guidance in this area. Hopefully, the parlous state of the honeybee will inspire us to change, to think again, and to take steps to re-establish our connection with the living world – a connection we have lost in the wake of our growing disregard for the integrity of Nature.
Bee-centred bee caring seeks to understand the nature of bees and maintains at all times an attitude of respect for this unique life form. When bees are cared for with due regard for their essential needs, when their natural life expressions are supported and encouraged, having bees in one's life becomes a source of joy and wonder. Striving towards uncompromising bee-guardianship, we may hope to come closer to fulfilling our true responsibility towards these vitally important and remarkable creatures.