The current practice of western beekeeping hasn’t changed much since it was introduced by the Victorians. I’ve been keeping bees for 15 years, after a training course at Plumpton, and I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with the degree of intervention that this entails. In order to stop colonies from swarming and taking the year’s honey supply with them, beekeepers open hives regularly in the summer, thus disrupting the bee atmosphere, with its powerful yet delicate matrix of pheromones, heat, smell and Goddess knows what else. They smoke them, they take off almost all the honey stores, replacing them with sugar syrup for feed, and they treat them with antibiotics and pesticides when the bees get ill. Perhaps most damagingly, honey bees are encouraged to create cells on a foundation of wax made by man, in order to harvest more honey, which is often about 10% bigger than the cells that bees make naturally, and they can’t make many of the larger drone cells. Far from being natural, traditional beekeeping is highly intrusive.
So I was delighted last year to find out about the Top Bar beehive, a model adapted from an intermediate technology approach used in Africa. I’ve just finished building my first top bar beehive, with my friend Steven. With the top bar beehive, you leave the bees alone to do their thing, including making cells of the size of their choice. With the Top Bar you take only a small proportion of the honey, leaving most for the bees to overwinter on. And if they want to swarm you let them, instead of destroying their new queen cells. With the colony in the woods I’ve decided not to open the hive at all other than to treat them naturally for varroa mite twice a year. Basically, natural beekeeping – or bee caretaking - is about learning about what bees want to do instead of bending them to our will, for our own profit. A few beekeepers are starting to listen to the bees. We’re generally vilified by standard beekeepers as allowing disease to enter the population. But given the facts – 30% of British bee colonies have been wiped out in the last two years – I reckon there is a call to create bee sanctuaries.
Rather than focus on the human colony collapse that might well follow from the bees, I will just bless and thank our honeybees. May you flourish and multiply. May you teach us about how to live in balance. And since I am now looking to populate our new hive, I now sing to the bees and if anyone hears of a swarm in this swarming month for our new hive, please contact Viva Lewes, and they'll get in touch with me.