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  • Posted March 24th, 2015

    Natural beekeeping: should it replace conventional beekeeping?

    Natural beekeeping: should it replace conventional beekeeping?

    I’d like to set out how the stance of the Natural Beekeeping Trust (NBKT) evolved and to contrast this with both the conventional approach and with that of others on the so-called natural beekeeping spectrum. Understanding this is important if confusion is to be avoided.

    Honey bees have been seen for millennia as insects that live in hollows and that can just as easily live in boxes provided by man. In the 1800s various beekeepers experimented with so-called movable frame hives, in which the combs on which the bees live can be removed at will by the beekeeper. Being able to remove the inner parts of a hive to inspect its contents fitted with the paradigm of insects-in-a-box. Current conventional hives all date from this period, mainly being variants of the hive patented by Lorenzo Langstroth. Hives of this type are designed specifically to facilitate manipulation of the bee colony and BBKA training majors on such manipulation as a means of managing and controlling bees to maximise production of honey or the provision of bees for pollination.

    Toward the end of the last millennium certain US beekeepers began to wonder whether such manipulation, which by then had become very intensive and intrusive, could be contributing to the bee decline that was even then becoming apparent. A simpler way of keeping bees was sought. At the same time, biologists began publishing books on bee biology that transformed our understanding of the bee colony. The desire for simplicity combined with a new understanding of bee biology acted as the seed for the emergent so-called natural beekeeping movement. In the initial phase of this movement some beekeepers focussed on simplicity while others focussed on biology. Nearly all, however, remained focussed on the beekeeper as the main actor in the story, seeing the beekeeper as someone who manages bees. In the later phase of the movement beekeepers have come forth who see the bee as the centre of the story, with the beekeeper playing the role of facilitator (see eg David Heaf). Bees are seen as quite capable of ‘managing’ themselves given appropriate hives and forage. The hives can be of different sorts and may, or may not, be beekeeper-friendly; what is seen as important is that they are bee-friendly (and need not be expensive).

    Decorated, bee-friendly hive.
    Decorated, bee-friendly hive.

    Conventional beekeeping has been largely untouched by these developments, which have mainly been propagated peer to peer via the internet and certain seminal books (of which conventional beekeepers are surprisingly ignorant). One can create a spectrum as follows:

    • conventional beekeepers see bees as insects in a box, with the box being bee-unfriendly, designed to be easy to deconstruct to maximise ease of intervention
    • early adopters of natural techniques (generally conventional beekeepers converting to natural beekeeping) see bees as insects in box, with the box being slightly less bee-unfriendly but still easy to deconstruct to allow ease of intervention
    • later adopters of natural techniques (often new beekeepers who have not passed through a conventional beekeeping stage) see the colony as a whole organism, the ‘Bee’, (following Tautz’s superorganism concept), with the box being the outer skin. The box is designed to be as bee-friendly as possible. Beekeeper intervention inside the box is avoided or limited only to actions that are required to assist the Bee.

    The NBKT stands firmly in the last of these three groups. Indeed many would say it is in the vanguard of this approach worldwide. We see the whole bee colony as the organism – in the words of Tautz (The Buzz About Bees, Springer), as a mammal made of many parts. Tautz points out that the superorganism that results is a step beyond normal animals. The honey bee is thus to be seen as a highly evolved creature, more evolved in biological terms than cows or sheep or, in some respects, man. For the bee to return to its full vigour we need not only to address the environmental issues it faces but also need to change our understanding of the creature itself, to move away from the insect in a box approach which, in bee biology, is completely inappropriate.

    Other natural beekeepers remain in the middle phase of the three stages outlined in the spectrum outlined above. Their husbandry approach is best described as “conventional-lite​”, arguably a stepping stone or transitional approach towards fully sustainable bee husbandry, sometimes referred to as “balanced beekeeping”.

    Inside a bee-friendly hive.
    Inside a bee-friendly hive.

    In conclusion, to make matters clear to new, or even existing, readers involves quite a bit of explanation. It is not just a question of giving a few tips or hints in how to keep bees. One has to see the whole undertaking in a new light. Interestingly, we find that non-beekeepers pick up on the idea very quickly, not having been through a conventional beekeeping training. You might be interested to read this recent post on our blog which touches on this.

    You will doubtless realise that the wholeness that comes from many parts, as exhibited by the bee colony, reflects the wholeness of nature that acts as one through many parts. We find that teaching about bees in this way opens peoples’ eyes to many aspects of the wider natural world and their relationship with it. They might even begin to see bees primarily as pollinators and honey as a special substance, rather than as a commodity to be traded as cheaply as possible in the world market, or produced in quantity for boasting rights at the local beekeeping association. We would dearly love to see a bee-friendly hive at the bottom of every garden – kept in a bee-centred manner, with genuine surplus shared with the family.

    The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's


    • 1Elisabeth Winkler March 24th, 2015

      I understand the different heart/mind approach – it is not about managing bees but about respecting bees and supporting them. And it makes sense to see the colony as a whole: “a mammal made of many parts”. What I don’t get is how this manifests at a practical level. I would like to hear more about the bee-friendly hive at the bottom of the garden.

    • 2Alex "Rook" Grover March 24th, 2015

      This “Third Stage” leaves a lot of questions unanswered for those of us who are not there.

      Why keep bees in a naturalized setting instead of just letting them live in nature? How natural beekeeping relate to the near extinction of wild bees in parts of Europe and the near total die off of feral colonies in the US? Does this respect for the super organism start pushing us to see honeybees as mystical (as they have been seen in the past)?

      For me the “Third Stage” looses touch with reality and starts inferring that humans really have no place in the world. Maybe that works for some, but for me it puts everything back out of balance.

    • 3Dave Darby March 24th, 2015

      I agree with what you say about sounding mystical. Let’s use science as a yardstick.

      But the approach sounds fine – let’s all keep a few bees – leave them alone, mostly, steal a bit of honey every now and then. If we kept bees less intensively, but more of us did it, the overall honey yield might not actually go down – but there would be a lot more bees and a lot fewer synthetic chemicals used.

      I don’t know enough about the techniques – but just the general concept is fine, surely?

    • 4Dave Darby March 24th, 2015

      I was thinking that. I’ve never looked into beekeeping for myself because it seems such a faff. but if natural beekeeping is less intrusive for the bees, and that = less work, even though it means less honey, I might do it.

    • 5Andrew Rollinson March 24th, 2015

      A bit philosophcal this (and perhaps slightly off topic too), so apologies upfront:

      If we think about human beings in comparison to communal animals like bees and ants, the way that humans “live” and the society that has been created, is far more backward. In no way should humans be the “wisest of the wise”. One arguement for Capitalism is that it is Natures way – the “survival of the fittest” – but this is not a Natural Law that we are locked into for bees show us the alternative Natural way. I don’t know what goes on in a bee colony and there may be brutal aspects in there, but animals like these (and ants) have survived so long because they work together. These are wiser creatures than homo sapiens.

    • 6Gareth John March 24th, 2015

      Alex said: For me the “Third Stage” looses touch with reality..

      On the contrary. It is the only approach that is based on science. Tautz, whose book is mentioned is an award winning biologist- the bee colony being a ‘superorganism’ and the concept of it being physiologically a mammal are his. Other biologists, such as Mark Winston and Tom Seeley come to similar conclusions. Both the latter have a couple of books in print if you are interested.

    • 7Gareth John March 24th, 2015

      Also sightly off topic: It is true that the essence of long term evolutionary change is that those individuals most ‘fitted’ to the ever changing circumstances in which they find themselves are the ones that have the most offspring. However, modern ecologists see something far more complex and subtle in nature than the rather simple, Victorian, concept of brutal competition: myriads of mutually beneficial interactions also take place both within and between species.

    • 8Andrew Rollinson March 24th, 2015

      Symbiosis. I find this very interesting. I think that it is this perceived (and arrogant) detachment from the rest of Nature that is at the crux of where humanity is going wrong. If, as seems logical, urbanisation increases this by detaching humans from the peace, sounds, smells, senses of nature, we really should be worried.

    • 9Dave Darby March 25th, 2015

      Been reading up on natural v conventional beekeeping, and apparently this is exactly the attitude that conventional beekeepers criticise natural beekeepers for – for leaving the bees alone too much. They say that it allows disease to spread. I’d like to know Gareth’s opinion on this.

    • 10Michael Bush March 25th, 2015

      >One can create a spectrum as follows:

      I agree with the “spectrum” terminology. Reality is that beekeeping is in some ways “unnatural” yet people have been doing it for millennia. So how “unnatural” is it? Humans are a part of nature and humans have been keeping bees for thousands of years. It’s no more unnatural than the ants who farm aphids.

      As Alex Grover’s comment points out, if you want to be natural and you’re not keeping them for honey or wax or pollination, then why not just leave them in the trees? Obviously the reason we keep bees is for what we can get out of it. Granted we can do that in a cooperative respectful manner or an exploitive point of view. But if you really want to be natural, you should stop keeping them.

      >conventional beekeepers see bees as insects in a box, with the box being bee-unfriendly, designed to be easy to deconstruct to maximise ease of intervention

      I agree with some of this statement. The prevailing view of bees for more than a century has been that it is just bees living in the box and not what it really is, which is an entire ecosystem.

      On the other hand, bees seem to flourish and be quite content to live in dried up automobile fuel tanks and old disposed water heater tanks and walls and soffits of houses. I’m not sure you can designate any box as “not bee friendly” when the bees seem quite content to live in them and can leave anytime they wish. Not to mention they have flourished in the “bee boxes” we’ve given them just as well as they have in the other cavities they have found to live in.

      >Early adopters of natural techniques (generally conventional beekeepers converting to natural beekeeping) see bees as insects in box, with the box being slightly less bee-unfriendly but still easy to deconstruct to allow ease of intervention.

      I assume this is referring to natural comb in some kind of movable comb hive. Certainly natural comb is a step towards natural beekeeping since foundation seems to be the source of many problems. Natural comb is the cell size the bees wish to build and it is clean wax, as opposed to wax foundation that is full of the chemicals being used by the “conventional” beekeepers.

      >later adopters of natural techniques (often new beekeepers who have not passed through a conventional beekeeping stage) see the colony as a whole organism, the ‘Bee’, (following Tautz’s superorganism concept)…

      I would not credit Tautz’s with the superorganism concept. The term was coined by James Hutton in 1789 and used by many people down through the years since. Tautz was the first that I know of to specifically compare a bee colony to a mammal. Even though many references through the years might imply it, such as “bee milk” for royal jelly etc.

      > with the box being the outer skin. The box is designed to be as bee-friendly as possible.

      I’m still unclear how you design a box to be “bee friendly” when it is clear the bees really don’t care that much. They are opportunists and live in almost any cavity within a certain range of volume.

      > Beekeeper intervention inside the box is avoided or limited only to actions that are required to assist the Bee.

      I’m not clear how this concept of “assisting the Bee” is different from “conventional” beekeeping. Commercial beekeepers seldom get into the box without some reason and unless it’s to harvest, that reason is usually to assist the bees in some way, at least from the beekeepers point of view. I suppose you can look at many of those manipulations in more than one light. If they are trying to induce brood rearing are they helping the bees rear brood? Or are they just trying to get the colony built up to make more honey? But isn’t that also the goal of the colony? To build up so they can make honey? I think one example of how natural beekeepers differ is the view that they don’t want to throw them out of synch with the world around them. For example, I don’t want to incite them to rear brood earlier than they would have because I throw them out of synch with the environment. Not that it is good or bad for them in general, but that I think throwing them out of the natural rhythm is not likely to be helpful to them in the long run. The difference is probably less a matter of natural beekeepers wanting to assist the bees and conventional beekeepers wanting to manipulate the bees as it is a faith in the complex natural balance of things as opposed to a simplistic view that it is the beekeeper’s job to “fix” everything.

      Michael Bush http://www.bushfarms.com/bees.htm

    • 11Heidi Herrmann March 25th, 2015

      Hi, Elisabeth, it would exceed the bounds of a blog post to try and set this out here, but maybe these points would be helpful http://www.naturalbeekeepingtrust.org/natural-beekeeping-what-it; there is also quite a lot of literature about holistic approaches to beekeeping; we particularly like “The Bee-friendly Beekeeper” by Dr David Heaf, and “Beekeeping with a Smile” by Fedor Lazatin.

    • 12OxNatBees March 25th, 2015

      Dave Darby has heard criticisms of natural beekeeping by conventional beeks. Have you heard the counter-view, that beekeeping based on highly inbred lines and prophylactic use of antibiotics, miticides etc (ie regular doses whether thay are needed or not) has resulted in weak, disease-prone bees? Natural beeks prize hardy ferals which have survived without human intervention. Tellingly, these are often milder mannered than constantly-disturbed colonies.

      Alex Grover asks why keep bees in a naturalized setting instead of just letting them live in nature? (1) you can get some honey. (2) They’re fascinating. (3) Even hardy ferals have a better survival rate with a beek to feed them during shortages, dealing with wasp raids and some other hazards. How does natural beekeeping relate to the near extinction of wild bees in parts of Europe and the near total die off of feral colonies in the US? A vague and loaded question. Europe has no particular problem with bee die-offs. I don’t know about ferals dying out in the US but I understand they do have one successful strain, Africanised honeybees, which are hardy and great honey producers albeit with some drawbacks! US based low-intensity “organic” beeks like Michael Bush (yes, the guy writing above, he’s very well known & respected) have a much better colony survival rate than their intensive beekeeping neighbours.

      Does this respect for the super organism start pushing us to see honeybees as mystical (as they have been seen in the past)? You are putting words in others’ mouths. Who exactly are you claiming is / was mystical? Personally I’m a hard core atheist who believes in natural selection, but if my neighbour has a theist world-model it doesn’t bother me, does it bother you? You seem to like attributing opinions to others and then disparaging them, what are your own views?

      Elisabeth Winkler asks how this translates into practice. This is a broad subject but here are some key points. A century ago people used simple woven baskets (skeps) with horizontal bars which bees built comb off. In those days – fewer pests, no pesticides, much more forage – the bees could be left completely alone. Harvesting was once a year and with irregular natural comb, not particularly mechanised. Natural beeks use this idea in various shapes of hive, generally wooden, and if they intend harvesting they take steps to make the comb easier to harvest, but don’t go all the way to frames and foundation, which give beautifully regular comb easy to harvest. Natural beeks don’t treat for some pests so some colonies fail, but the ones that survive are very hardy and handle most pests themselves.

    • 13Dave Darby March 26th, 2015

      I’ve read some of the information on the Natural Beekeeping Trust’s website, and I have to say I’m impressed. It chimes with my fears about what’s happening to ecology. I’m hoping that Gareth might post again about the problems associated with conventional beekeeping, and I’d like to know more about the claims that natural beekeepers neglect disease control. If I can understand these issues, I might look into getting a hive. So I echo Elisabeth’s request for practical advice too, although I dare say I’d find a lot on the NBKT website.

      I understand what Alex Grover means by ‘mystical’. On the NBKT home page there is mention of biodynamic agriculture, which, as it’s on the home page, readers might believe is associated with natural beekeeping – but I don’t believe that it is. Ecology is a rigorous discipline, and we have access to plenty of peer-reviewed evidence about what’s happening to it. If there is evidence that natural beekeeping is beneficial to ecology in ways that conventional beekeeping is not, then that’s the direction we should move in, really. That’s what Lowimpact.org is about. Biodynamic agriculture is organic, which of course I applaud, but it has a homeopathic / sucussion element that, in my opinion, is not supported by evidence. I’m happy to have that debate elsewhere, but it’s a bit off topic here, not least because there is no need for natural beekeeping and sucussion to be conflated.

    • 14Dave Darby March 26th, 2015

      To clarify that last point, I would fight for someone’s right to practice biodynamic agriculture if they want to. I’d personally prefer to avoid it if I took up natural beekeeping – and I’m pretty sure that’s not a problem.

    • 15Gareth John March 26th, 2015

      >I’m hoping that Gareth might post again about the problems associated with conventional beekeeping

      He is working on a long piece that will be posted on the NBKT website that compares conventional and natural beekeeping in terms of the biology of the bee.

    • 16OxNatBees March 26th, 2015

      There’s no particular link between permaculture and natural beekeeping, other than that people interested in permaculture tend to have the mindset the Chinese call “Wu Wei” – go with the flow, why do things the difficult way, use the nature of something to do the work for you. Most natural beeks have little idea what permaculture is.

      The way you keep bees doesn’t affect how effective they are as pollinators. People who sell pollination services (like beeks who take their bees to orchards) use conventional hives, or even polystyrene ones, because they’re a lot less heavy! lthough there are some large scale natural beeks in the USA, in the UK the largest low-intervention apiary I know of is about 12 hives in one place. Which would be plenty for even a large farm by UK standards.

      This leads to another point. You suggest that perhaps if everyone kept a few bees… this would be too great a density for modern foliage to support. There isn’t as much forage these days as a century ago, when horses were our cars and every fourth field was clover or alfalfa.

      Returning to the disease point. Natural beeks tend to have just a few hives and thus have time to watch them intently, say every weekend, for a few minutes each. We study the behaviour of the colony without opening the hive. This gives us a good idea about whether they are queen-right, stressed by something, etc. If something is awry – THEN we open and inspect. We let them handle certain pests and minor diseases themselves. But for the more serious diseases we do call in the bee inspectors, we do destroy colonies with the scary irrecoverable infections, and we are responsible beekeepers. It is the equivalent of letting a human recover from a cold by themselves and learn to handle bullies (varroa) themselves but stepping in if they have a serious illness or something they can’t handle like a large band of robbers. Incidentally, robbing colonies are often ones where a conventional beekeeper has taken too much honey…

    • 17Dave Darby March 26th, 2015

      That makes sense. The real issue, I suppose, is responsible beekeeping, whether natural or conventional.

    • 18Dave Darby March 26th, 2015

      Plus when I said ‘everyone’, I really meant more than do now.

    • 19Anne Taylor March 26th, 2015

      Ask yourself the question – if you were a bee, would you prefer to be in the care of a ‘conventional’ beekeeper, or a ‘natural’ beekeeper? As the article states, there is a spectrum, from the very worst to the very best of beekeeping methods, so it’s perhaps not a simple question. However, I’d prefer my carer to be the natural beekeeper every time. I’d want to be able to express my natural instincts, forage in a wide variety of abundant bee-friendly pesticide-free flowers, drink from pesticide-free water sources, build up my larder of honey and pollen through the season, and NOT have the honey all ripped away just as autumn comes and be left with vastly inferior sugar syrup. I’d like not to be forced to remain in one hive because my Queen’s wings had been clipped to prevent her from being able to fly. I’d like all the drones in my hive to be allowed to thrive, instead of being killed by the beekeeper because they’re thought of as useless eaters. I’d like my Queen to be able to select her own mates, rather than being artificially inseminated in a laboratory by people who think they know better. I’d like not to be sprayed with chemicals because my immune system had become so weakened by stress and low quality food that I was unable to thrive without them. A “low-impact” beekeeper, should do everything in his /her power to put the needs of the bees first, rather than following the –frankly cruel – practices that the worst of the conventional beekeepers follow. Unfortunately wing-clipping, drone-culling, replacement of almost all honey with sugar syrup, and routine chemical treatments are all taught by the BBKA. This is NOT low-impact.

    • 20Dave Darby March 26th, 2015

      I agree with what natural beekeepers are saying at a fundamental level – i.e. that the prime value of bees is as pollinators, so we should revere them for that, and take only excess honey. Maybe honey should be more of a luxury in society, not £2 a jar in supermarkets; plus let’s get pharmaceutical companies out of beekeeping altogether, and let nature show us how bees should be nurtured – with as few synthetic substances (that bees – and the rest of ecology – have not evolved to cope with) as possible, in treatment and in the hive itself.

      I’d like to explore more details, around things like pest control for example, but I’d like to do the exploring in public, so that more people are exposed to it, and the arguments stay on our site permanently. We’ll post more beekeeping blogs soon.

    • 21Dave Darby March 27th, 2015

      We got this via email, from a conventional beekeeper in the US. He preferred not to post as himself, as he didn’t want to get involved in a debate, but was happy for us to post his opinion:

      As a person dedicated to having the minimal environmental footprint possible, I commend you on your site.

      I cannot agree with Mr John as far as his opinion of how conventional beekeepers see bees. As evidenced by my writings, many of us indeed see the honey bee colony as the superorganism that it is, and spend considerable time in learning to understand its inner workings, as well as being as unintrusive as possible. And for many of us, our bees thrive–indeed, I sell thousands of dollars worth of bees each spring to those who think that they are practicing some sort of more natural beekeeping, but whose colonies repeatedly die.

      Most any conventional beekeeper would like to be as “natural” and unitrusive as possible, if for no other reason than that it is less work and less costly.

      Since your site is about low environmental impact, perhaps I should focus on that topic.

      As for low impact, stationary beekeeping indeed has less carbon footprint than migratory beekeeping. Traditionally, migratory beekeeping was to the bees great benefit–as with Apis dorsata and A.m. scutellata, which naturally migrate to better forage with the progression of the season. Nowadays, migratory beekeeping is a business opportunity due to our screwed up agricultural system, which is unfriendly to natural pollinator communities.

      As for the hive equipment used, there is little difference in impact between natural and conventional beekeeping, other than that many of us use a plastic core to the comb foundation. This use of plastic would add to our footprint.

      As far as the feeding of bees, many conventional beekeepers never feed. Feeding is only necessary when the number of hives in an area exceeds the carrying capacity at the moment. Feeding would add to our footprint.

      In my own case, I weighed the difference between either trucking my bees to better pasture each summer, which eliminated all feeding, vs keeping them stationary in my dry environment and feeding them protein supplement. The feeding appeared to me to have less environmental impact.

      Worldwide other than in the U.S., most conventional beekeepers harvest every drop of honey and feed back sugar syrup. This has a high footprint, due to the need to grow and process sugar from either cane, beet, or corn. The consumer drives this by being willing to pay the price for the honey.

      As far as mite treatments or the occasional use of an antibiotic when called for, I don’t see any difference in impact between conventional and “natural” beekeeping.

    • 22Gareth John March 27th, 2015

      Thank you for this contribution.

      While there are beekeepers of all stripes who see the bee, to a greater or lesser degree, as a superorganism, preferring a low intervention approach, sadly this is not reflected in the way beekeeping is taught, at least in the UK (I cannot speak for the US). It is true that large scale beekeepers are often much lower on the intervention scale than hobbyists. As colony numbers grow, the time that can be spent on each diminishes. Moreover, I suspect that many hobbyists either give up beekeeping after trying to implement the time-consuming inspection regime promoted by BBKA training, or drop out of that regime and go their own way.

      Regarding the low impact point, hobby beekeepers are bombarded with blandishments to buy plastic hives and plastic hive parts, (not to mention fancy honey extractors and the like). The use of simple wooden hives, without complex plastic frames or plastic foundation is preferable in terms of environmental impact. For the person with just a few hives, harvesting honey does not need to be a complex operation requiring expensive kit.

      Treatment with antibiotic is illegal in the UK except under a legal direction from the local bee inspector and even then is not the preferred option. A growing group of low intervention beekeepers in the UK do not treat for mites. Their bees show as good, or better, survival rates than treated bees.

      ‘Natural’ is a very broad church, largely self-defined. ‘Conventional’ is similarly wide. Maybe there are better terms that could be used.

    • 23Quentin Alsop March 27th, 2015

      Hi , I have heard that non intervention beekeeping has equal or less colony loses than”conventional” beekeeping but have been unable to find the evidence or research to support this statement . I have checked with Defra who are only able to provide over winter colony loss data for BBKA members in uk and I have seen the data for US which is roughly 3x as bad as the UK. But I can’t find any data on Natural Beekeeping.

      Can you point me in the right direction. Thankyou.

    • 24Michael Bush March 27th, 2015

      Over the years many of the state beekeeping clubs have done surveys with mixed results but all in all treating and not treating have had about the same losses. Sometimes it is one way and sometimes the other. Also the Bee Informed Partnership has been doing surveys now for several years with similar mixed results. Some years the ‘treaters’ lose more and some years the ‘treament free’ people lose more. But all in all the losses are about the same. You can try a search on the various state names, beekeepers and survey and you might find some. e.g. MICHIGAN BEEKEEPERS SURVEY you might even add LOSS to the query and that might improve things. I think the main difference when you don’t treat is WHICH bees you are losing. You are losing the ones that can’t survive without treatments. When you treat you are losing the ones that can’t survive while being treated. Which do you want to select for? And then even though you may not know it, you are selecting for mites. Mites that live in a balance with the bees or mites that can reproduce fast enough to keep up with the treatments. Which mites do you want to select for?

    • 25Gareth John March 27th, 2015

      I know of one local BKA in Wales where winter losses amongst the non-treaters over four years are lower than the treaters, and gradually the treaters (mainly conventional beeks) are giving up treatment: it is not worth the bother (http://www.dheaf.plus.com/beekeeping_photos/gwynedd_winter_losses.jpg). I also know of an increasing group of non-treating natural beekeepers spread across southern England who have losses that are as low as, or lower than, treatment beekeepers in the same area. The total colony numbers run into the hundreds, so it is a reasonable sample size. Defra/Fera reporting does not differentiate between one style of beekeeping and another: they cannot conceive that there is a difference or that bees can survive without treatment. Many natural beeks are either not BBKA members or do not bother to respond to the questionnaire.

    • 26Philip Walters April 30th, 2015

      If I might add to OxNatBees’ reply, I am a new beekeeper, so much so that I’ve built a hive using Phil Chandler’s plans and am currently looking for a place to keep the hive. We’re hoping for a local farm. Anyway, I’ve read much on natural beekeeping and in regards to the control of pests:

      1. There is a very interesting theory that when beekeepers remove too much honey, we take away not only their food source but also a far superior food source to the sugar syrup that is substituted. Honey, as we all know, is a great antidote to many illnesses and, I believe, a natural anti-septic. So, leaving them with more of their own honey actually makes them healthier and more resistant to disease anyway. A theory of course, but there seems quite a lot of evidence to support this, analysing not just the size of the bees but also their colour and general apparent health.

      2. A widely un-confirmed solution I believe, but an addition to helping the bees control pests themselves, is the “eco-floor” or deep floor, if using a top bar hive. In this design, a lower floor is added to the hive and filled with material that represents their natural environment; i.e. leaves, earth, twigs etc from a woodland floor, such as that which might be inside a hollow tree, for example. This material houses other organisms and insects which, rather than posing a hazard to the bee, actually contribute to the health of the hive. I’ve read a few posts on this and some have been unsuccessful and others successful, but one that sticks in my mind stated that the beekeeper who used this “eco-floor” in one of his hives, produced his healthiest hive and needed no interference at all for two or more years.

      I must point out that the above are just theories from my perspective as I have no personal experience, yet, to support them. BUT, it all makes a lot of good, simple sense to me.

    • 27Tim Evans April 30th, 2015

      Hi Dave, I started keeping honeybees conventionally in 2009 and moved over to sustainable (‘natural’) methods (Warre) in 2011. I’m still learning, of course, and many conventional beekeepers have far more experience than me. But I’m struck by how 21st century science supports sustainable methods. Especially in just the last 10-15 years when scientists have micro-instrumentaton which enables them to track bees, measure temperature in the middle of the hive, etc. It’s clear that colony health depends on many factors including:

      – bees controlling temperature, sometimes to a fraction of a degree, to produce healthy brood (remember the queen is producing 1,000-plus new bees every day in summer). Brood temperature is 35-36 deg.C, about the same as the human body.

      – bees creating a chemical atmosphere in the hive cavity which provides a large part of their immune system

      – fairly high humidity in the colony cavity

      – communicating by vibration through the comb

      – variety of diet

      – feeding on nectar not sugar (sugar thins the gut wall and reduces metabolic production of hygienic secretions)

      – a good local gene pool (mating is between colonies not within the hive)

      – natural colony density in the landscape – at least 500 metres apart is what they prefer: this acts against disease transmission

      So, conventional practices include:

      – keeping bees in hive systems which make it hard for bees to control airflow, humidity and temperature

      – opening the hive every 10 days March- August, letting warmth and chemical atmosphere out

      – providing man-made comb foundation which changes vibratory properties of the comb

      – feeding sugar

      – suppressing genetic diversity by selective breeding (as with most livestock), by discouraging colony production of, and killing, drones (males) and killing queen grubs

      – concentrating colonies intensively (as with livestock)

      – responding to varroa by trying to kill the mite with various substances, all of which have some toxicity to bees; the effect is to keep non-resistant colonies going, in effect farming varroa by constantly feeding them vulnerable colonies, instead of allowing bees to select for resistance

      I do none of these things.

      Thomas Seeley, perhaps the doyen of current north American honeybee science, recently published a study which concludes that varroa is best dealt with by minimum intervention, genetic diversity and low colony density. These are basic to sustainable beekeeping.

      So you can see that the health question has more than one side to it.

      What have you been reading?

    • 28Peter Bartlam May 1st, 2015

      Reading this article and the subsequent replies has been such an eye opener for me. Although I don’t keep bees myself I’ve always found them and the idea of beekeeping fascinating. It’s heartening that such an old practice seems to be undergoing a gradual renaissance. I’m intrigued by the idea of using traditional skeps too as I suspect that the pressure to use modern materials and ‘high tech’ equipment has far more to do with shifting product and increasing profit than any real gains to the amateur beekeper. It’s often easy to forget that all of these species managed quite well before humankind got their sticky little fingers on them (awful pun intended). We could learn a great deal from the way these amazing creatures live in their natural environment. Not just about beekeeping but in a wider sense about how to manage our lives harmoniously.

    • 29Ray Purse May 26th, 2015

      Pardon me if I butt in here but I find the notion of the bee being a “superorganism” (the concept: “ with the box being the outer skin…as a mammal made of many parts.”.. “Tautz points out that the superorganism that results is a step beyond normal animals”) quite absurd. The point about an organism is that it is alive and generates its form that houses this life successively from its genes. The box – the outer shell – is made of wood or straw and has its own ‘livingness’ and the comb, although passing through the bee, is not of the bee (it is processed from another livingness) and is no more ‘womb’ than a thrushes mud lined nest is (egg in external cell for comparison). In the thrushes case is it just that the ‘three component’ organism doesn’t qualify as a superorganism or is it that the thrush, the egg and nest aren’t a ‘whole organism’ at all? – I don’t hear anybody calling it this, perhaps because we don’t think of it as a mammal…The problem with ‘concepts’ is that they claim to do more than describe and end up doing nothing. I’m sure the bees haven’t changed their spots – actually become something else – for the dreaming up of a name or a piece of non-sense. Consider the similarity of the human in his abode: is what is all within (a family and furniture etc.) and the abode itself the human organism? I know that I for one do not live in this concept of “superorganism” – that it has no application of sensibility but it can be so easily said of us, We are all “normal” animals because we (they and the human race) show life – the mystery. Come on now Heidi, in sitting before your hives are you listening out for the box or the bee?

    • 30Tim Evans May 27th, 2015

      Ray, if you find it ‘absurd’ and ‘non-sense’ to describe a honeybee colony as a superorganism then you’re going to have to take it up with every single biologist currently studying social insects. Jurgen Tautz heads one of the foremost research groups on honeybee behaviour, at Wurzburg university. Read his book, English title ‘The buzz about bees: biology of a superorganism’, Springer, 2008, which is a popular science account. I think it’s in the bookshop here. You could also read ‘Honeybee democracy’ by (Professor) Thomas Seeley of Cornell University, Princeton Univerity Press 2010, a popular account of research on decision making processes in the honeybee colony, and/or ‘The Superorganism’ by Bert Holldobler and E.O Wilson which also covers wasps and ants. (The ‘step beyond normal animals’, isn’t a helpful phrase, though: it’s simply a different evolutionary pathway.)

      Consider this: the individual honeybee worker does not reproduce. So how does it as an organism ‘generate its form that houses this life successively from its genes’?

    • 31Heidi Herrmann May 27th, 2015

      Ray, I feel I must correct a possible misconception – We are not “normal animals”, we are human beings. (On questions of normality I do not claim expertise) Additionally, at the Natural Beekeeping Trust and in our many friendly associations with other beekeepers of like mind, such as Tim Evans, and many others, we aspire working towards a common goal. “We could learn a great deal from the way these amazing creatures live in their natural environment. Not just about beekeeping but in a wider sense about how to manage our lives harmoniously” Peter Bartlam says above. This sums it up nicely. In that vein, the article on which you comment is a fruit of a collaboration, and your “come on now Heidi, in sitting before your hives etc.” is entirely misplaced, least not for the reason that we bee people rarely sit in the flight lines of our hardworking super-oraganismic and very superior beings. All my best wishes to you in your endeavour to open your heart to the bees. Be assured that any such efforts will be rewarded by the bees, who have a keen interest in our human evolement.

    • 32Gareth John May 27th, 2015

      Ray, a bird’s nest is indeed an extension of its body, albeit a temporary one, just as is any tool. When it comes to the comb in a bee hive, there is nothing temporary; it is intended to last for the lifetime of the organism. It supports the internal structure of the hive, acts as the memory of the hive, gives the hive its identity (through its unique aroma that spreads to the individual bees), acts as the hive’s communication network, plays a key role in the immune system of the hive and on and on. In other words, it has many key physiological functions as well as physical ones. The concept of the bee colony – the ‘Bien’, or the ‘Bee’ – being a single organism is not new. It started in the 1800’s (Mehring) and was developed in the early 1900’s with the coining of the term superorganism. The comb is inside, and forms part of, the superorganism, having been created by another part of that organism, the cadre of wax producing bees; it is not separate, nor separable, from the organism. Those who spend time observing bees in natural circumstances come to realise this.

      Our western thought processes struggles with such realities. Where there is unity, we seek classification, distinction and separation. It is part of the lesson of the Bee that nature does not care for man’s simple dichotomies.

    • 33kevin August 24th, 2019


      I make a GARDENERS BEEHIVE , pretty much every thing about it is a little different, derived from 40 years of untainted working with honey bees and not beekeeping but bees in trees. from this I have made a mock tree stump. And I have developed a very unique method of harvesting honey. it is compleatly controlled by the bees. dictated to by what is happening in the environment. so its infact the only self regulating honey harvesting system I know of. this makes it the only system that conforms to every permacalture ethic that makes it compleatly unique.


      check it and me out its petty cool

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