On 17th September, author, director and beekeeper Bill Anderson, gave a fascinating online presentation on natural beekeeping following the recent publication of his book ‘The Idle Beekeeper: The low-effort natural way to keep bees’. As Bill was visiting Arran recently, the event was organised so that interested beekeepers on the island may benefit from these practices. Bill is clearly passionate about his subject and this was a great opportunity to discover new insights from the world of Natural Beekeeping. Following on from the success of this talk, a follow up presentation with Bill has been set for October – see below for more details.
Bill thinks of himself more as a hive keeper than a beekeeper and explains that the distinction is not merely semantic: –
“I don’t keep bees – they keep themselves, far better than I will ever be able to imagine. They are wild animals, free to come and go on their own terms. But like an innkeeper trying to entice customers to come to their inn, I can try and provide accommodation that suits my guests. If I have no idea what it is they need and want, I cannot succeed. But the more I begin to understand the bees’ changing needs, deliver the right support at the right time, but otherwise allow them to develop according to their own natures, the more likely they are to thrive and stay. The innkeeper’s approach to the bees requires handing over keys to your guests rather than wishing you could lock them up to do your bidding…”
Bill uses the simple Warré Hives developed by Émile Warré in the 1930s which enables bees to retain their own nest atmosphere; – warmth, vapours of propolis and pheromones – essential to the nurturing and development of brood and healthy bees. The husbandry used to manage the hive is non-intrusive and is Bee-centred. Bill explained about some of the positive things that we can do to help support their well-being, lessen the burden of stressors and help them to become more resistant to e.g. varroa and pesticides as follows:
● provide insulated Warré bee boxes for bees
● If you keep bees do not disturb their hives weekly, just a couple of brief times a year,
● plant nectar rich plants
● do not use pesticides
Notes on natural methods of beekeeping
Films like ‘The Pollinators’, shown at an Eco Savvy film night recently, have highlighted the current plight of commercialised beekeeping with colony collapses becoming ever more heart-breakingly frequent. This has been linked to pesticide use, in particular neonicotinoids, but increasingly we are coming to realise that is not the whole story.
Over the past 150 years or so, hobby beekeepers have embraced wholesale the equipment (such as smokers, queen excluders, and Langstroth-type frame-based hives) and ‘manipulations’ (such as queen breeding, chemical Varroa treatments, replacing honey with sugar, and swarm control) used by commercial beekeepers. This has been likened to using factory farming methods for bees, adding stressors which only serve to reduce their natural resilience to disease and pesticides.
Many people are fascinated to learn about the biology and behaviours of bees, but often find beekeeping manuals confusing. Conventional beekeeping can seem complex, costly, stressful, and, being full of expensive equipment and arcane language and terms, ultimately exclusionary.
Finding out about ‘Natural Beekeeping’ can be a ‘light bulb moment’ for many. Bill Anderson recommends the Warre hive as, unlike most conventional beekeeping hives, it is cheap and easy to make at home, a truly democratic ‘People’s Hive’. Also, its structure and dimensions more closely resemble the hollowed out tree trunks that bees would naturally choose for themselves in the wild (if we didn’t practice ‘woodland management’ techniques, clearing out dead wood so assiduously!).
The Warre is not the only sort of hive suitable for natural beekeeping however. Phil Chandler recommends the horizontal top bar hive which is similarly simple to make, but is particularly good for windy sites, as well as for beekeepers with bad backs because, once in place, there is little to no heavy lifting of boxes involved.
However, one thing Natural Beekeeping practices have in common, whatever kind of hive you have, is that they aim to be as low intervention as possible, respecting bees’ innate behaviours honed over 15 million years, with the result that bees don’t merely survive, they start to thrive.
One of the questions conventional beekeepers often ask natural beekeepers is ‘What do you do about Varroa? ‘. This is a parasitical mite that feeds off bees and their larvae and introduces viruses, which weaken and may ultimately kill bee colonies. It is hard to kill an insect which lives on another insect, yet conventional beekeepers try to control Varroa with regular doses of chemicals (few people realise that honey is rarely organic). Sadly, as with overuse of anti-biotics, successive generations of Varroa mites are becoming increasingly resistant to the drugs.
In contrast, natural beekeeping recognises that bees have always co-existed with parasites and have evolved to deal with them. Natural beekeeping supports them to do just this through various means, but in particular by recognising the importance of hive insulation. This mimics the insulating thickness of a tree trunk (without the bulk and weight!) and thus helps the bees to regulate temperature and humidity inside their hive. Humidity is key to varroa mite reproduction: they do not thrive in the tropics, nor in the high humidity levels bees prefer in their hives. It is another reason why natural beekeepers generally choose not to break the propolis seals and take the roof off the bees’ homes with weekly inspections, as conventional beekeepers are advised to do. They suggest that this tends to let out beneficial heat and humidity, let in potential infectious agents, and stresses the bees. Imagine how you would feel if someone took the roof off your home every week, just to ‘check everything was ok’!
Just as we put out nest boxes for birds, so we can simply provide bees with an insulated hive for a home (whether we take a little spare honey from them, or not). Researching which nectar-rich plants extend the flowering season and adding them to our gardens, then leaving bees in peace to do what they do best, these are some of the most useful ways we can help support our native honeybee population.
For more information, please join Bill at his next online talk, and read his book “The Idle Beekeeper: The Low-Effort, Natural Way to Raise Bees”. Available from Hive
Arran Eco Savvy invites you to join Bill Anderson for a follow up to his fascinating talk on bee- centred, non-intrusive husbandry in September. Due to popular demand we are excited that Bill will be giving a second presentation on Wednesday 14th October to recap his ideas and delve into further detail. Not to be missed by any aspiring beekeepers and pollinator enthusiasts!
With many thanks to Helen Ross for her assistance with this article.