The more I studied beekeeping, the less I knew, until, finally, I knew nothing. But, even though I knew nothing, I still had plenty to unlearn.
Charles Martin Simon
When I started down the ‘natural’ track in my beekeeping endeavours, I brought with me a considerable disadvantage: I had already kept bees in the conventional way for many decades. At the time, I did not realise that the knowledge I had gained was a disadvantage; in fact, I thought it gave me a head start. I thought I understood bees. A little reflection would have shown that I did not: what I understood was beekeepers’ perceptions of bees, which is a very different thing.
As a conventional beekeeper (a pursuit I had put on hold many years before), when the bees didn’t react according to the books to some manipulation or other, I had always thought that it was my fault for not reading the book properly. So I would read the book again and apply extra diligence to the procedure I was attempting. As often as not, it still didn’t work. At which point I was left thoroughly confused and went in search of someone who could teach me how to do what I was attempting ‘properly’. In conventional beekeeping circles, one still hears requests for someone who can teach how to do such-and-such properly because ‘my bees don’t seem to read the books’. Of course bees don’t read the books, at least not ones written by beekeepers. I used to think this was a joke: it isn’t. Beekeepers and beekeeping authors, each reflect and build upon the picture of bees painted by the generation before, until what emerges bears little or no resemblance to the ‘Bee’, the complex and highly developed organism with which we have the privilege of interacting. It was time to start unlearning.
At about the time this concept formed in my heart I came across some wise words written by Charles Martin Simon. He termed the unlearning process ‘beekeeping backwards’. His words were an enormous inspiration to me and they are worth repeating. What follows is an extract from a longer piece.
I have established mystic contact with the spiritual core of apiculture, and now anything is possible. Some of you old timers might resonate with this statement, but most of you, I’m sure, will not have a clue. Many will be irritated by what you perceive to be my arrogance; but, you have it backwards. It is not arrogance; it is humility. I will attempt to enlighten….
The more I studied beekeeping, the less I knew, until, finally, I knew nothing. But, even though I knew nothing, I still had plenty to unlearn. For we can never, and I do mean never, reiterate the ideals of the books, of history…..
I realized early on that if I followed the rules as written, I would fail. And how could anyone who knows better choose to fail? But it did take me a long time to figure that out. I started out just like everybody else, trying my best to go by the book.
It took me 20 years to get up the courage to sell my extractor, after it had taken me ten years to save up enough to buy it in the first place along with a truck with a shack on the back to serve as a portable extracting room. I was so stupid back then. I thought it was about honey. I’d read all the books….. I bought it hook, line, and sinker.
He then goes on to set out what he calls Charles Martin Simon’s Ten Principles of Beekeeping Backwards:
1: Work with Nature, not against Her.
2: Profit doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot if you’re dead.
3: Dead bees make no honey.
4: Don’t fight it.
When I think of all the years I’ve spent fighting ants and all the techniques I’ve employed, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Right now I’ve got naked honey comb and open bowls of honey in my kitchen, and plenty of ants too, but they’re leaving the honey alone. How come? Because I don’t fight them. I feed them. There is a bowl of honey on the counter established for them, where they can come and get all they want. At first they were hitting it heavily, then they lost interest. Apparently, if they can’t have it, they want it. If they can have all they want, they don’t want it.
5: Beekeeping is not about honey.
6: It’s not about money.
7: It’s about survival.
Well, actually, it’s not about survival, since nobody survives. It’s about the quality of life while you’re alive. Do your best to make the bees’ life the best it can be and it will be the best it can be for you. Stop thinking “maximum production”. Substantially less than most is way better than nothing at all. Learn how to leave the bees alone. Benign neglect is the way. Provide them with appropriate cavities.
8: Forget everything you ever learned and start observing what is really going on.
I have observed that the harder you fight to keep your bees alive, the faster they die. Cut them loose, give them freedom, the freedom to die as well as the freedom to live, and they live better.
9: Leave your bees alone.
10: Leave me alone.
If you decide to become bee-centred rather than beekeeper-centred, there will be many who will cause you to doubt the wisdom of your approach. This is where you need to apply principle 10. Some of the most vocal will style themselves ‘natural’ but, when you really study their teachings, you will see they are still highly beekeeper-centred rather than truly bee-centred.
Lastly, don’t be put off by those who constantly want to know the physics of why it works. Bees don’t read books on physics: if it works, it works and that’s good enough.
The full version of the Charles Martin Simon article quoted above is here.