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.
This article was first publish in Beekeepers Quarterly Issue 123, 2016
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 costs 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.