Beekeeping In Transition
We recently co-held an event on bees in Ealing with Friends of the Earth, at which we showed the film More than Honey, the latest in a line of films exploring the plight of the honeybee. The event was well publicised and well over 100 people attended, which is a very good turnout for us.
I trained earlier this year in beekeeping theory, and have participated in a few practical sessions over the last couple of years, so this was a timely event for me.
Most beekeepers have ‘national’ hives, in which pre-cast wax bases are provided for the bees on frames. The bees draw out the wax bases into comb, and then insert either eggs (which turn into more bees) or honey. There is a regular regime of inspection, and beekeepers intervene to stop colonies from swarming by removing cells which contain new queens. They also treat preventively to stop various conditions including the dreaded varroa mite, which is now a fact of life for most if not all beekeepers in the UK. Honey – the energy store that bees create to get them through the winter- is harvested late in the summer, and often replaced with sugar syrup.
A much smaller number of beekeepers have Warré hives, and practice ‘natural’ beekeeping. This method does away with the frames and lets the bees build their own structures, which look rather like big hanging wings. The hive is rarely, if ever, opened. Honey is left in the hive until the spring, seeing the bees through the winter on their own forage. If there is any left, that is the beekeeper’s harvest; if not, well, tough. Swarming is viewed as natural, and accepted. Ask a long-standing National beekeeper about Warré hives and there will normally be a sharp intake of breath before a lengthy exposition on why you shouldn’t.
A few years ago bees started to die out in large numbers. This phenomenon has been termed ‘colony collapse disorder’ and scientists are still trying to figure out the causes – though their thinking has evolved quickly over the last few years. Was it down to the dreaded varroa mite? Was it new pesticides like neo-nicotinoids? Or was it industrial beekeeping which, by way of an example, sees colonies being shipped around the US to pollinate vast monocultures like almond orchards?
More Than Honey – and common sense - suggests that constant intervention by humans and the industrialisation of agriculture are weakening the bees so they are unable to defend themselves against illness. Imagine being regularly doused in harmful chemicals, made to eat one food type all summer then junk food all winter, and being forced to live with both your parents and your grown-up children when it is clear you – and they - need your own space. Not to mention spending half the year on the road and, to extend the analogy, sleeping in a bed that isn’t quite the right size for you. Then contrast this with just being left to your own devices and eating a diverse, locally-sourced, organic diet.
The more I find out about these amazing creatures, the more I worry that a lot of what we do to bees is for our benefit rather than theirs, and this must be reversed. I find myself increasingly drawn to natural beekeeping and have put off my plan to make a hive until I have spent some time with some of the beekeepers who practice it.
The film offers a ray of hope. Colonies of Africanised honey bees, a hybrid of African and European strains, have been entering the US (illegally – imagine, they just flew in!) and do not suffer from the problems of the regular honeybee. It seems that if left to her own devices, Nature will provide a solution.
Bees are important, but also they are a microcosm of much larger problems, notably modern farming practices. High energy inputs, monocultures, pesticides, agricultural run-off, it’s all part of the same agro-industrial nightmare. The permaculture approach – working with nature and mimicking her processes – just seems so much smarter.
It would be tempting to end this piece on a dreadful bee pun like ‘creating a buzz’ or ‘bee happy’ but in the name of our collective sanity I won’t. I’ll report back further next year as my research continues.