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"Natural" Beekeeping

Some of my thoughts......

There is a lot of material on the web concerning "natural" or "sustainable" beekeeping. For the purposes of this page I will assume they mean the same thing, although others may have different views. In general, supporters of this type of beekeeping refer to keeping bees in standard hives as "conventional" beekeeping, so to make it easy for the reader I will refer here to "natural" and "conventional" beekeeping, although I don't agree with these terms.

There are a wide variety of views amongst "natural" beekeepers, but there are some fairly common principles, these include:-

As a long term conventional beekeeper, I also share these views and wouldn't argue with any of them, although I may deal with them in different ways. As an example, I believe bees aren't as tough as they were when I started beekeeping, mainly because of the importation of unsuitable races and their mollycoddling by those who think they are being kind in doing so. Although they would be subjected to natural selection if left alone, I would prefer to requeen them with queens of tougher stock. That is different than simply letting them die as the result of varroa, associated viruses, and their unsuitability to our conditions. There are however, some views I would strongly argue with.

With "natural" beekeeping there are differences in methods and opinions, but in general no wax foundation is used and the combs are usually crushed to remove the honey. Some "modern" beekeepers are opposed to taking honey from comb that has had brood in it, but I don't see a problem with that. In any case there are ways of ensuring queens don't lay in combs without using physical barriers such as queen excluders. A number of different hives are used, some of the more popular are the top bar hive (TBH) or Warré, some having combs vertical, others horizontal. Some agree with feeding, others don't and the same with treating for varroa, where some will use thymol, others won't. There are as many different views in "natural" beekeeping as there are in conventional. That's healthy for beekeeping and long may it continue, providing it is based on experience, not prejudice.

There is a fairly strong "natural" beekeeping movement worldwide and it is probably fair to say it is growing, but so is conventional beekeeping. I understand and applaud the basic thinking, but sadly there are a number of "natural" beekeepers who seem to want to rubbish the way other people keep their bees, including other "natural" beekeepers, often trying to prove their point by using inaccurate arguments. This of course doesn't fool the experienced and knowledgeable beekeeper, but it could influence the beginner, who may believe what they read or hear and of course that's the purpose. I have spoken to several who have taken up "natural" beekeeping on the grounds of what is "wrong" with conventional beekeeping without even trying it. Some listen to the arguments, others have been brainwashed and simply won't listen.

To make my point about inaccuracies I am responding to comments I have lifted from "natural" beekeeping websites.

"Much of modern beekeeping, like intensive farming, is geared to maximum production"

My response.The average beekeeper in England and Wales in 2014 keeps 4.5 colonies, with the vast majority only keeping 2-3. Most beekeepers I know are more interested in their bees and only want a few jars of honey for the family.

"Advocates of "natural" bee-keeping claim better varroa control, and healthier, happier bees, as a result of their hands-off approach" and "The stresses put upon bees in hives can only be remedied by beekeepers who are willing to put the needs of the bees first."

My response. Varroa is a problem worldwide and it, or the viruses it vectors, causes stress in colonies. I have seen many colonies with heavy infestations of varroa that are on the point of collapse, because the beekeeper hasn't dealt with it. A few months before writing this I saw a colony that hadn't been treated for varroa for 3 years. There were a huge number of bees with deformed wings crawling on the ground in front of the hive, where they had been ejected from the colony to starve - is that caring for bees? I am not in favour of the use of hard chemicals but I can't see how a hands - off approach will reduce varroa to a level that doesn't cause stress. There are a number of non - chemical techniques that combine to remove a reasonable proportion of varroa. One of the ways of reducing varroa used by "natural" beekeepers is icing sugar dusting. This has to be repeated regularly and I suspect causes quite a lot of stress.

It is well known that drones that have been parasitised by varroa have a much lower sperm count. This may be one of the causes of poor queen performance that has become a recent problem. The lower we keep the varroa level in a colony the better.

How can it be said that bees are happier? How can they tell if their bees are happier if they don't inspect them?

"Of the 30 colonies that faced last winter every single one survived".

My response. So did mine and the bees of my local BKA (2012/13) - a combined total of over 60 colonies. There were also zero losses in the same number during 2014/15 winter. This doesn't agree with a "natural" beekeeping lecturer I once heard who admitted that winter losses are significantly higher for "natural" beekeepers!

Some websites and discussion forums are riddled with similar inaccuracies and constant bashing of conventional beekeeping. To be fair, there are plenty of conventional beekeepers who are intolerant of "natural" beekeeping and I'm sure in many cases they know little about it and have probably never tried to understand the thinking. I have had some very good and enjoyable discussions with beekeepers who consider themselves to be "natural" beekeepers. The more reasonable ones are in fact very knowledgeable and do things (or don't do them) based on knowledge, experience and sound thinking. I have also tried to have discussions with others whose strong views are simply "cut and pasted" from elsewhere.

In my view there is far too much intolerance in beekeeping on all sides, with sometimes quite strong views on things based on lack of knowledge. In my view there should be as much respect for other peoples opinions as there should be for bees.

In over 50 years of beekeeping, I have seen lots of different methods performed by lots of different people. I haven't agreed with some of them and on occasions I have had to say so, but I try to give a reasoned argument. In my experience you need a system where everything you do fits in together, but with enough flexibility to change, depending on circumstances.

Let's just look at the word "natural". As far as beekeeping is concerned I think it should mean without intervention from man. That should be to have native bees nesting in natural sites and foraging in natural areas. In our case in the U.K. and Ireland that is usingApis mellifera mellifera bees, nesting in hollow trees and not foraging on agricultural crops. Quite difficult to achieve! In areas of the world where the honey bee isn't indigenous any kind of beekeeping isn't natural. One "natural" beekeeping website admits that, as it states "Of course, the term Natural Beekeeping itself is somewhat problematic, as the keeping of bees is never truly natural".

Regarding the bees kept, virtually every U.K. "natural" website I have recently checked that has pictures of bees, they have yellow bands. Amm don't have any yellow, so immediately they are not natural.

I have removed several hundred colonies of honey bees from trees and buildings and I'm afraid that some of what I have seen isn't very close to what I have read about "natural" beekeeping. See my page on a natural bee nest.

To glean more information than I already knew, I searched the web and have read virtually everything that isn't a copy of something else. As with many things in beekeeping there is much repetition. There are a few that I suspect embarrass the "natural" movement in general, but I thought the majority were thoughtful, informative and passionate - just how beekeeping should be. I enjoyed reading them. They got the message across much better than the "pushy" and offensive ones who seem to think that discrediting other methods is better than persuasion. One boldly and arrogantly stated they were "guardians of the bee", as if others aren't!

Although I have not tried "natural" beekeeping myself I have handled bees kept in this way. They are different with different techniques needed, but with a bit of common sense you can soon learn what to do. In teaching, I suggest that if anyone wants to look at "natural" beekeeping I think it is better to learn on conventional hives first, then convert. That way you will know if some of the claims made are correct, especially if you can keep them side by side. I have known several people who have done this, but in most cases after giving them a trial they have abandoned them. That may be because they haven't observed and understood the colonies fully. You can still keep bees in a conventional hive and be a caring beekeeper.

As a well established "conventional" beekeeper I can see some benefits. Certainly the TBHs can all be made from scrap wood at no cost and to your own design. I am practical and well capable of making hives, so no problem there. I like the idea of no foundation so the bees build what they want and by crushing the combs they are regularly replaced. I think these are good points.

I have no problem with "natural" beekeeping or most of those who advocate it. I have no need to rubbish it just because it is a different way of achieving the same as I do, but I wish the vocal minority wouldn't rubbish the way I have chosen to keep my bees, based on gross inaccuracies to try to get their message across. In my opinion many of the principles of "natural" beekeeping I am doing anyway, so why am I seen as being "unnatural"? If what I do isn't natural, neither is what they do, hence my use of "natural" throughout this page.

Providing beekeepers understand their bees, respect them and keep them in a caring way, I don't care how they do it.

Roger Patterson.