Understanding the Bee
Bee-centred beekeeping aims to protect and preserve the bee as a highly developed wild creature and essential pollinator rather than seeing it solely as a producer of honey.
Some say that unto Bees a share is given of the Divine Intelligence, and to drink Pure Draughts of ether, for God permeates all - Earth, and wide ocean, and the vault of Heaven - From whom flocks, herds, men, beast of every kind, draw each at birth the fine essential flame.
The Georgics, Virgil
To care for a wild creature, one needs to know the nature of that creature. What is the nature of the bee? It is easy to see bees as individual insects that live in colonies in the shelter of hives. However, careful observation shows that, at a functional level, the bee organism is not the individual bees but is, in fact, the entire colony. This whole is made up of bees, combs, the space between the combs and the myriad hormonal, chemical, microbiological, behavioural and physical interactions that occur within the hive. The interactions between these elements are so fundamental to the bee that individual bees cannot survive away from the colony. The smallest colony that is capable of surviving numbers several thousand bees. Large colonies number several tens of thousands of bees. Yet this still constitutes one functional organism. In German, there is a name for this whole: it is called the Bien. Some natural beekeepers in the UK have started using the term 'Bee', with a capital letter, to denote the same thing.
Taking cognisance of the wholeness and complex wisdom of the Bee results in certain guidelines informing one's beekeeping. Not all beekeepers who call themselves natural follow these principles. For example, rather than rely on swarming, which is the natural reproductive process of the Bee, many beekeepers increase their colony numbers by 'splitting' or by artificial queen rearing. The techniques used rely on the ability of the Bee to heal itself from trauma and bypass the subtle processes involved in genuine reproduction. They are akin to cutting a worm in half to make two worms and calling it reproduction! By contrast, if one works with the swarming impulse, the Bee itself determines the course of events and the process becomes Bee-centred, rather than beekeeper-centred.
Finally, we would do well, as beekeepers, to be mindful of the form of the creature, the Bee. It is a beautiful, rounded, organic form. Our serious contemplation of this form may inspire us to seek for new ways of "housing" the bees in our care.
In summary, the principles that underpin our approach are:
The entire bee colony is seen and understood as a single organism - 'the Bee'
Regular observation of the Bee allows the beekeeper to understand and judge its health and development
Interference with the Bee is kept to the minimum.
Intrusion into that part of the Bee where young bees are raised (the 'brood area') is avoided and only done when essential to the wellbeing of the Bee.
The rhythm, resources and development of the Bee are intimately connected with its local Environment
The growth of the Bee (through the raising of brood) is not artificially stimulated by feeding or manipulation of the brood area.
The Bee is sustained on its own honey.
Only honey that is genuinely excess to the needs of the Bee is harvested.
Supplemental feeding is done only to avoid starvation or to allow the proper development of swarms in adverse conditions.
Swarms are sourced from locally adapted stock and colony density takes account of local conditions of forage and bee health.
The Bee has its own natural processes that are respected and encouraged
Reproduction of the Bee is determined by the swarming impulse.
The Bee is encouraged to develop its natural defence mechanisms against parasites and diseases without the use of miticides, medications or other interference in the natural processes of the Bee.
Hives are constructed and placed bearing in mind the essential form and needs of the Bee
Hives allow the building of natural honeycomb in a manner that reflects the natural shape and dynamics of the Bee.
Hive design and materials promote the maintenance of colony warmth and atmosphere. Hives are located in places that support the essential needs of the Bee.