Friday, June 19, 2009

Towards More Natural Beekeeping

Historically, we began our relationship with bees when somebody discovered that the taste of honey was worth the pain it cost to harvest. We became honey-hunters, and while there were few of us and many of them, this was sustainable. When somebody discovered that it was possible to offer shelter to honeybees while they made their honey, and then kill them off to raid their stores, we became bee keepers, and while there were few bee keepers and many honeybees, that too was sustainable.

Then someone invented a clever way to house bees that did not require them to be killed, but instead allowed people to manage and control them to some extent, arranging things so as to trick them into producing more honey for their masters than for themselves, and we became bee farmers. And that was sustainable for a while because there were still many of them and although there were also many of us, we could manipulate their reproduction so as to make more of them as we needed. Then it became clear that we had gone too far, for some people began to find that their bees began to suffer from diseases that had been virtually unknown during the old days, and that they now had to be given medicines in order to keep them from dying. And because a whole industry had grown up around the farming of these bees, and there was a lot of money at stake, bee keepers were slow to change their ways and many could not do so for fear of bankruptcy, and so the health of the honeybees became worse and they became subject to parasites and viruses that had never troubled them in the past.

Meanwhile, we forgot how to grow food in the way that we once had done because we were no longer inclined to labour in the fields, and instead devised clever ways to make the soil support more crops. We poured fertilizers onto our fields and killed off inconvenient creatures with pesticides. This was never sustainable, and never can be: we are constantly withdrawing more than we deposit.

And that is where we find ourselves today, and this is the problem we face: bees that have become weakened through exploitation and a toxic agricultural system, allied to the expectation of continuous economic growth.

As 'natural beekeepers', our most pressing work is to restore bees to their original, healthy state. We need to think of ourselves as 'keepers' in the sense of 'nurturing and supporting' rather than 'enslaving', which is the old way. We must seek to protect and conserve the honeybee by working within their natural capacity, and not constantly urge them towards ever greater production. We must challenge the whole agricultural and economic system that has caused us to arrive at this point, because without change at that level, the future for both us and the bees is bleak.

We can make a start by establishing new and more natural ways of working with bees: neither we nor they have any need of unnatural 'treatments' with synthetic antibiotics, fungicides or miticides. We don't need to operate 'honey factories' – we can content ourselves with providing accommodation for bees in return for whatever they can afford to give us. In some years, this may be nothing at all, while in others there may be an abundant harvest. Such is nature: bees depend on honey for their survival; we do not. If the price of returning bees to a state of natural, robust health is a little less honey on our toast, is it not a worthwhile sacrifice?

Monday, June 01, 2009

No Answers, Only Questions: another weekend with Michael Weiler

A review of a Biodynamic Beekeeping Workshop: Reducing Stress; Increasing Vitality, presented by Michael Weiler at The Hatch Community, Thornbury, May 2009.

The typical public view of beekeepers is, I suspect, that we are a harmless bunch of kindly but eccentric, nature-loving folk, strangers to controversy and not given to overly-assertive statements of opinion, who like to mess around with odd-looking boxes of stinging insects at the bottoms of our gardens.

The reality is that - like many other subjects of gentle obsession - beekeeping is rife with politics, radically opposed opinions and dogma by the skep-full. Arguments have raged for years about this type of hive and that method of queen-rearing and recently the air has been full of theories about why bees appear to be 'dying out'.

How refreshing then, along with 50 other bee enthusiasts of all ages, to spend a weekend with a beekeeper who is at the same time knowledgeable, practical and self-effacing, as well as being an inspiring and captivating teacher. Where he is sure of his ground, he can back up his statements from experience, and he is always willing to listen to other opinions and observations, even when they differ from his own.

Michael began by talking about how we 'meet' a colony of bees as a singular organism, as compared to how we experience other creatures for the first time. There is no body, no head, no legs and no eye-to-eye meeting as with other domestic animals, and we first have to get used to interpreting its unfamiliar 'language'. Such a first-time meeting can be daunting for a newcomer, and often there is an element of fear to overcome. The sight of a large swarm hanging in a tree can cause alarm among people who don't understand that in this state the bees' only concern is to find a new home, and having nothing to defend, they are most unlikely to harm anyone.

Most life is connected to the soil, but the life of bees seems to come - as Michael put it - 'from the heavens towards the Earth'. The cluster hangs from a tree, and when it enters a cavity it hangs from the roof, and the bees hang from their comb and hardly contact the walls or the floor, as if they don't like to touch the material world more than is absolutely necessary. This quality shows us that they are significantly different in their nature to animals that walk on the ground. Having no physical body and no skin, the creature that is the bee colony must find a suitable skin and build within it a 'skeleton' of beeswax, which is is produced from the 'high fever' generated when bees cluster together. New wax comb is light and almost transparent, gradually yellowing, darkening and hardening with age. The comb serves as a nursery as well as a place to store food, both nectar and 'bee bread' - a fermented mixture of pollen and nectar that is fed to larvae. Having a diversity of pollen is essential for their health, and bees will always seek out multiple sources of pollen, as can be seen from the spectrum of colours present on a typical comb.

Michael is convinced that one of the purposes of bees is to produce honey, both for their own use and for ours in the 'development of our own egos'. The honey we eat is the product of 'sensitive and intricate work' and helps us to 'act rather than react'.

Michael discussed the swarming impulse and the timeline of events leading up to and beyond the flight of the prime swarm. He referred to Steiner's description of the developing queen larva 'giving off a light' causing the swarm to 'move away from this disturbing source' for fear that it 'no longer possesses bee poison', a state that means it can't defend itself anymore or save itself'. Indeed, the swarm emerges in a highly excited state, whirling and spinning as if in a panic, and Steiner likens it to 'the soul of a human being, forced to leave its body'.

The subject of swarming always generates animated discussion among beekeepers, mainly concerned with the various ways of preventing it. As Michael says, swarming is a 'renewing and refreshing process': a 'necessary and elementary part of the bees lives', and we need to find ways of working with the swarming impulse, rather than becoming too focused on largely futile attempts to thwart it. So we need to look at how we can 'manage' swarming in a way that allows the bees to express their natural desires. Our job as beekeepers is to provide a 'skin' for the 'naked swarm' - in the form of a suitable hive.

I last met Michael in 2005, while I was working in commercial beekeeping and in my own time experimenting with top bar hives. Since then, I have given up frames, foundation and mechanical extraction in favour of the simplicity and bee-friendly design of top bar hives, which Michael asked me to talk about as part of this event. Michael's experience is mainly with Dadant hives, which he has run successfully for many years without queen excluders - his colleague in Germany runs a commercial operation based on 500 of such hives. While our choice of hive may differ, we agree that the queen should have the run of the hive and that bees should be allowed to build natural comb as they prefer and not be forced to use wax foundation, which slows and constrains cell-building and has been shown to contain residues of pesticides and varroa treatments. The numbers of workers and drones are allowed to find their natural balance, according to how the bees decide to arrange things: drone culling, along with the use of worker-only foundation, is just one of the stressors applied by beekeepers in an attempt to have them perform according to a human plan.

As an example of stress, artificial insemination of queens was being experimented with around the time that Rudolf Steiner gave his warning that if such methods became the norm, bees would be in real trouble in 80 to 100 years. His six bee lectures were delivered in 1923.

Indeed, I suspect that most of the problems facing bees today are caused by the stress of having to live their lives in a world shaped by humans: a toxic agricultural system; atmospheric pollution; insecticides; habitat destruction; electromagnetic pollution - and on top of all that they have to cope with unnatural hives and beekeepers with their ideas of how bees should be 'managed'. Before the advent of 'modern beekeeping', less than 200 years ago, it was not possible to manage bees in the ways that are now routine, and many beekeepers interfere with bees far more than is good for them. This is, I suspect, largely due to the way beekeeping is usually taught: as a largely mechanical process that happens to involve a species of insect, rather than a mutually beneficial meeting between humans and a highly-evolved creature that has been around far longer than we have.

As Michael says, 'you can tell a lot about a culture by studying the quality of its meetings', and the quality of this meeting between bee enthusiasts promises much for the future, if it enhances the way in which we meet our bees and share their world. A wide range of people took part, including some who had not yet experienced bees at close quarters and others with many years of beekeeping behind them. Many questions were asked by participants, and Michael himself said several times that he had 'no answers: only questions'.

For a teacher to admit that he does not have all the answers takes courage, while for an audience to hear that and accept it requires faith. Our faith was rewarded with a weekend to remember, that will, I think, have a profound effect on the way participants will conduct their future meetings with bees.

As Michael says, 'not all people can become beekeepers, but the more people who have a deep feeling for the bees, the happier the bees will be'.

P J Chandler

10 Things You Can Do to Help Save the Bees

Bees are in trouble, and it is mostly because of us. We have destroyed much of their natural habitat, we have poisoned their food and in the case of honeybees, we have used and abused them for our own purposes while not giving enough attention to their needs and welfare.

Honeybees have been evolving for a very long time – the fossil record goes back at least 100 million years – and they became remarkably successful due to their adaptability to different climates, varied flora and their tolerance of many shapes and sizes of living accommodation. They became attractive to humans because of their unique ability to produce useful things, apparently out of thin air: honey, wax and propolis.

Until the nineteenth century, they were kept in pots, skeps, baskets and a variety of wooden boxes intended more-or-less to imitate their natural habitat of choice, the hollow tree. With the invention of the 'movable frame' hive, the second half of that century saw an exponential growth in commercial-scale beekeeping, and by the time motor vehicles became widely available, beekeeping on a widespread and industrial scale became a practical possibility.

Since then, bees have been treated in rather the same way as battery hens: routinely dosed with antibiotics and miticides in an effort to keep them producing, despite the growing problems of diseases and parasites and insecticide-treated plants that have led to the emergence of so-called 'Colony Collapse Disorder', especially in the massive bee-farming operations in the USA.

It doesn't have to be like this. Some beekeepers have realized that, if bees are to become healthy enough to develop resistance to disease and the ability to adapt to pests, then they have to be treated differently – and not just by beekeepers.

Here are some things you can do to help the bees:

1. Stop using insecticides - especially for 'cosmetic' gardening.
There are better ways of dealing with pests - especially biological controls. Modern pesticides are extremely powerful and many are long-lasting and very toxic to bees and other insects. Removing all unnecessary pesticides from the environment is probably the single most important thing we can do to help save the bees.

2. Avoid seeds coated with systemic insecticides.
Beware - many farm seeds are now coated with Clothianidin and related systemic insecticides, which cause the entire plant to become toxic to bees and all other insects that may feed on it. The same coatings may soon appear on garden seeds. Check your seed packets carefully - and if in doubt, ask the manufacturer for full information.

3. Read the labels on garden compost - beware hidden killers!
Some garden and potting composts are on sale that contain Imidacloprid - a deadly insecticide manufactured by Bayer. It is often disguised as 'vine weevil protection' or similar, but it is highly toxic to all insects and all soil life, including beneficial earthworms. The insecticide is taken up by plants, and if you use this compost in hanging baskets, bees seeking water from the moist compost may be killed.

4. Create natural habitat.
If you have space in your garden, let some of it go wild to create a safe haven for bees and other insects and small mammals. Gardens that are too tidy are not so wildlife-friendly.

5. Plant bee-friendly flowers.
You can buy wildflower seeds from many seed merchants, and they can be sown in any spare patch of ground - even on waste ground that is not being cultivated. Some 'guerilla gardeners' even plant them in public parks and waste ground.

6. Provide a site for beehives.
If you have some space to spare, you could offer a corner of your garden to a local beekeeper as a place to keep a hive or two. They will need to have regular access, so bear this in mind when considering a site.

7. Make a wild bee house.
Providing a simple box as a place for feral bees to set up home is one step short of taking up beekeeping, but may appeal to those who want to have bees around but don't want to get involved with looking after them. Ideas for such boxes will be available at

8. Support your local beekeepers.
Many people believe that local honey can help to reduce the effects of hayfever and similar allergies, which is one good reason to buy honey from a local beekeeper rather than from supermarkets, most of which source honey from thousands of miles away. If you can, find a beekeeper who does not use any chemicals in their hives and ask for pure comb honey for a real treat.

9. Learn about bees - and tell others.
Bees are fascinating creatures that relatively few people take the trouble to understand. Read a good book about bees and beekeeping, and who knows - you might decide to -

10. Become a 'natural' beekeeper.
It is easier than you might imagine to become a beekeeper - and you don't need any of the expensive equipment in the glossy catalogues! Everything you need to keep bees successfully can be made by anyone with a few simple tools: if you can put up a shelf, you can probably build a beehive! For details, see

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Phil Chandler is author of The Barefoot Beekeeper and has a busy discussion forum for natural beekeeping on his web site at

A new charity – Friends of the Bees – has been created to raise awareness of the bees' health problems and to promote more natural methods of beekeeping. See their web site at