Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Trouble with Beeks

As I've been rather unkind about beekeepers in this blog, here is a list of beekeepers who have very kind and helpful, and have had a big influence -

George Tinker who got me my first swarm from the wall of Richmond Fire Station in 1988
Ernie Chant who was a mentor for many years
Prof Robert Pickard  whose talks in 2000 and since have made me aware of the connection between bees, humans and the wider environment, and made me realise how much we can learn from bees about effective communication.
Prof Thomas Seeley from Cornell University and his books The Wisdom of the Hive and Honeybee Democracy, and his research into hive society and behaviour

A tree warden once asked if it was true that beekeepers were all nutters. I said they were surprisingly similar to tree wardens actually (I am both).

Why I’m not a proper beekeeper:
       not in it for the honey
      don’t give them sugar syrup
      don’t medicate them againt varroa  
      don’t stop them swarming,
       don’t open up the hive except for minimal intervention.
      haven’t taken any exams (got information by word of mouth, and books, and talks) 

Ways that beekeepers are not like bees.
They have honey competitions - bee society is not collaborative not competitive
They have master beekeepers - there are no experts in the beehive
They have hierarchical institutions with presidents and chairmen - there is no hierarchy in the beehive, and no rulers - the 'queen' is the mother, not the boss
They compete with each other eg natural vs unnatural beekeepers
They believe that bees are there for us. This card is one of many that I have got at Honey Shows over 25 years for various exhibits, of which the cards are the only record. I don't mind this, but It always annoys me purely because of what it says beneath the bee: "We serve Mankind"  - don't think bees share this view.

Beekeepers often:
  • Import queens from around the world.
  • Because beekeepers transported beehives, the parasitic Varroa mite migrated via Asian bees -apis cerana, to European honeybees. Apis Cerana had evolved to coexist with varroa mites; their shorter brood cycle means the mites can’t get established in the cells, so they’re not taken over by them like our Apis Mellifera have been.
  • Australian bees are the only ones left varroa free, so they fly thousands of them to the almond orchards in the USA where they're doomed, because they’re next to infested hives. 
  • Apiaries spread disease. On average, colonies are 400 - 850m apart in wild, only around 2m apart in apiaries.
  •  Hives are low, for convenient access; in the wild, they are at least 3m off the ground in trees away from predators. (according to Tom Seeley’s experiment)
  •  The cavity of hive is often too small or too big. The ideal size for them is 40 litres (Tom Seeley’s experiment)
  •       Removing propolis, the valuable substance the bees collect from buds and tree resin to protect themselves, which has anti fungal, antiseptic, antibiotic properties. Propolis is brown and sticky and beekeepers tend to get rid of it.
  •  Medicating, which disrupts pheromones, the chemical balance of the hive.
  • Preventing swarming [essential in built up areas], a natural process for bees, which maintains their health and disrupts the brood cycle of the varroa mite.
  •  Examining them, which reduces their temperature, which takes several days to re-establish, and stresses them.
  • Feeding them sugar syrup which doesn't have the nutrients of honey, or even worse high fructose corn syrup in the US, which is cheaper but actively harmful to bees.

Because of beekeeping, honeybees must be more widely researched than any other insect, and beekeepers are invaluable resources of information about them, because honeybees are the signifiers of conditions in the wider environment. Perhaps it's worth considering which is the more important role - collecting honey, or disseminating information about bees to the wider world? 


  1. Wow! As I read down your list of points, I kept saying to myself, "yes, yes, yes! When I started beekeeping 4 years ago, I was surprised at the manipulation that Beekeepers were going through to get maximum honey production. Then when I joined the local bee club, I learned about ordering packages, medicating, and pinching the heads off the queen from a swarm. Luckily I didn't follow their advice. I built swarm bait boxes, a log hive, and practiced low intervention 'inspections,' I got my bees from swarms, one from a bait box hung on a bee tree.
    Last year I had a Warre hive that had varroa mites. Lots of them. I let the bees take care of them and now it's my strongest hive...mite free.

    1. Thank you so much for your comments. Those comments got me heavily criticised by my association, and the BBKA rejected my proposal to put hives in trees a la Tom Seeley (who endorsed the idea) and monitor them without interfering with them. I suppose it clashes with the belief that bees and nature generally can't survive without man!