Natural Beekeeping Research Trip – Europe!
Tree Beekeeping, Poland
Open log beehive, Eastern Poland
Hello and welcome to my first ever bee-blog! I hope to share some of the wisdom gleaned from our travels meeting up with European beekeepers and bee conservation projects, in the hope of finding new ways to live more sustainably with our pollinators. This research trip would not have been possible without the generous help of the Churchill Travel Fellowship – thanks Winston!
At the beginning of my personal journey into the world of beekeeping I was bombarded with lessons in an intensive, wartime form of beekeeping – ‘conventional beekeeping’ which was presented as the norm. I was told ‘beehives could not be kept alive without the use of chemicals to control mites’, that to ‘allow’ bees to swarm was irresponsible which would result in bees not surviving the winter, importantly resulting in less honey for the beekeeper. It also seemed that replacing honey with sugar was normal. My first few experiences of beekeeping were subsequently horrible! I had an awful time of stress and worry – dominated by fear rather than awe at the beauty of the bees. My first hives were three thin national hives, all of which had been treated with miticide chemicals, had their honey taken from them, and they had been exposed to a summer of swarm control manipulations. Was this beekeeping? No wonder that when combined with pesticides and lack of habitat that our bees were suffering!
Surely, if bees have been on this planet for around 100 million years, they have the capacity to adapt – they have survived through many extinction phases where the environment has proven harsh. The queen bee mates with around 15 males (drones) to ensure maximum genetic diversity in her offspring, and hence why honeybees are so good at adapting. This adaptability does not magically stop with varroa; the host of parasites develop natural resistant over time, and by treating with chemicals, this stops the natural equilibrium from forming. We need to allow the bees to develop a resistance. Treating with miticide is simply putting a plaster on the problem, and is compromising the health of our pollinators.
With all of this in mind, surely from a beekeepers point of view, there was something I could do! Well… if I didn’t take too much of their honey, I didn’t fiddle around with them, I allowed them to reproduce (swarm) and I helped make their hive a little more like that of a natural tree cavity, then I wouldn’t need to put this god awful chemical stuff on them?! Bingo! Now this of course all sounds really simple and makes a lot of sense, but in the conventional beekeeping world, beekeepers lose their hats over the thought. Beekeepers love their bees and I think a lot of them genuinely think they are doing what is ‘best’. Beekeepers around the world have been fed a conventional type of beekeeping as gospel, and this, disgustingly, is linked to past (and present?!) relationships with agrochemical companies. If you teach a beekeeping method, which disrupts a colony to such an extent that it cannot survive without chemicals – hey presto, some big money can be made in the ‘solution’.
And this is why I’m writing this blog today, and why I’m out in Europe trying to find solutions. Not only was the impending pollination crisis buzzing in my ears night after night, but also the injustice to humanity as well as to nature caused by the lies and ensuing complicitness in this environmental and social destruction was too much to sit around and not do something about. I was also super annoyed at misinformed and stuck in the mud conventional beekeepers telling me that my bees would die without chemicals, that I was stupid, and where was my ‘proof’? Well here I am, gathering it, and also learning the best possible ways to ensure our bees are happy and healthy.
And so, our trip begins….
One VW campervan head gasket blown, and we’re on our way to Dover in a possibly as dodgy converted ford transit – a quick last minute buy from a couple down in Easton. They were selling the big red ex disability minibus because their family was about to expand, and as they handed over the keys, the lady, sure enough, started going into labour. I did haggle a good fair bit on the price, so hopefully I didn’t have too much to do with this. I did sweeten the deal however with two lovely jars of honey from our bees, and the birth went smoothly (with thanks to the honey of course). So off we chugged to Dover, only to find our ferry was delayed by five hours due to strikes in France. Now I’m all for a good strike, but with a schedule like no other, this was not an option! Timmy worked his magic, and we were squeezed onto a ferry to Dunkirk. The ride was great – really calm seas, thank god, because my seasickness knows no bounds; I was once sick on a canoe in the lake District. Alas, in contrast to the beautiful journey, was the sight that enfolded, that was to be… Dunkirk. The ferry port was a scene of power stations, coal piles bigger than three story houses, and oil refineries. Hmmm…. This is why I’m on this trip – to try and make this a less frequent scene for the future generations that follow after me.
First stop – Eastern Poland for Tree Beekeeping!
…. (Via Bruge, Dusseldorf, North Germany, Berlin and Warsaw)
I had heard about a young lad in Poland called Piotr Piłasiewicz (www.bartnictwo.com) who was seemingly single-handedly bringing back the lost traditions of tree beekeeping in Poland. Up until the Second World War, Polish people have been clambering up trees, carving a small hollow into a living tree, and ‘beekeeping’ from within the natural habitat. A door is wedged in the front to keep the cavity closed and warm, a small entrance hole is made, and the hive is only opened twice a year – once in the spring to check if the cavity has been occupied by honeybees, and once in the autumn to harvest a small amount of honey (and only if there is enough). If the tree were to fall, that section would be cut out, and set back up high in a tree – then called a log hive. This beautiful example of living in real harmony with the trees and the bees, thrived until the evils of the second world war, when the majority of Polish tree beekeepers were killed. Also during this time, timber prices rocketed, and the huge trees which had served tree beekeeper families and bees for centuries, were felled. These trees were literally chopped down with the bees still within. With the falling of the last trees, the tradition was lost, and the last tree beekeeper in Poland died in 1969.
Tree beehive, Eastern Poland
Luckily, these traditions were documented at the 23rd hour by a park ranger, and published in a very rare book. This book, proudly shown to us by Piotr, is the tool that is allowing him to re-vive this tradition.Piotr has learnt the intricate ways to make his own rope and tree climbing equipment, how to carve the cavity, and even the climbing techniques employed (see picture – not easy!).
Piotr climbing a tree in a traditional polish tree beekeeper way
So what is so great about tree beekeeping? Well! The first whamey is that bees used to live naturally in trees. A cavity would be found by the scout bee, which was a good few meters off the ground (away from bears and humans etc) where the air was not damp, the size remained the same, and the wood of the tree was very thick. Thick wood is incredibly insulating, therefore the bees are easily able to maintain the hive at 36 degrees – the ideal temperature. Unnatural deviation from temperature can lead to brood problems and losses. In comparison, modern hives are made of very thin wood, and the heat loss is dramatic. Even worse, there is a strong held notion that bees need lots of ventilation and so open mesh floors were invented. The bees therefore struggle to keep warm and use lots of energy to maintain the desired temperature. Furthermore, the ideal temperature for varroa to thrive at is 34 degrees; so a ventilated hive, being opened often for swarm control etc, is actively encouraging the varroa mites.
Inside a tree beehive!
As the bees are so inaccessible, this dissuades the over-inquisitive beekeeper to keep poking around inside the hive. Either you need to climb a rather scarily tall ladder, or you need to learn to climb trees really really well (and then open the hive!). Every time you open a beehive, the delicate ecosystem is damaged. Bees communicate via chemicals – Is there enough honey? Has the queen been fed? There’s a mouse on the loose in brood box two… etc. You open this hive, and the chemicals are lost. Furthermore, my god, you then go and plonk chemicals inside the hive, and the bees are ‘lost’. They become stressed, directionless, and are not able to function properly or healthily.
Bottom of the hive floor; a natural ecosystem with ants and all sorts!
The hive floor was really interesting too. In conventional beekeeping, you are encouraged to keep the hive very clean! But in nature, the bees leave wax and detritus at the bottom of their hive, and in this creates an ecosystem, which provides homes for ants and creepy crawlies. Could ants and earwigs eat the varroa? Phil Chandler, a natural beekeeeper in the UK who uses top bar hives, often stuffs woodchip and all sorts of natural bits and bobs to encourage this ecosystem – creating an ‘eco floor’.
Piotr has thirteen log and tree hives. He never treats for varroa, allows swarming, opens the hive twice and year, and only takes a tiny amount of honey if there is enough. With thirteen colonies, only two of these did not survive the winter. Piotr believes this is mainly down to a lack of forage. The Polish forests are predominantly pine monoculture. Although we did see a lot of undergrowth, the forests compared to that of a natural one, was very poor in biodiversity in terms of bee forage.
Piotr also mentions something really interesting – that over time and successive brood rearing in the cells, the cells get smaller and smaller. And guess what? Varroa can’t breed as much in the naturally smaller cells! The wax foundation that is used in conventional beekeeping, the cells are made far bigger than are naturally made in order to encourage more honey storage. You are also advised to change the comb regularly, and I’ll also add that this wax is from millions of different colonies around the world, and contains within it many chemicals. Funny then, that when you keep changing the cells and keeping them big, in putting more chemicals into the ‘liver’ of the hive, that you get lots of varroa mites! We also spoke to a PHD student who has just started comparing log hives with conventional hives. The results have not been published yet and so we could not get a quote, but preliminary findings have shown that within the log hives, there is far greater antibacterial function, and 20% more compounds found within the honey. Could this be a factor that allows them to better fight and adapt with varroa?
I really like tree beekeeping because it reminds and reconnects you to how bees are supposed to be, and gently encourages you to have to greater respect for them. We are pushing our bees too far, and they are responding by giving a very very clear message – that the current methods imposed on them, in combination with their compromised habitat, is causing their demise.
For more information on Tree Beekeeping, click to the bottom of this page.
Me, carving a log hive! Oh how we tried to fit it into the van! No such luck!
On our way out of Poland, we met anther lovely young lad called Lucas who runs a large scale bee farm of over 100 hives … naturally! He is one of the few natural beekeepers out in Poland along with Peter, and has set up a project called ‘Free Bees’. Lucas uses 20 drops of thyme oil on a piece of cardboard if he thinks the varroa is getting too high, but only when he has to. Far better than chemicals in my books! Lucas is 27, and a firefighter. Funnily enough in Poland, when you have a swarm of bees in your garden, who do you call? A fireman! So this works out quite well for his bee business.
Lucas uses Langstroth hives and allows them to swarm. Each year, he takes five to seven kilos of honey per hive, and feeds them with 10kg of sugar in the winter. His reasoning for this is that sugar is far more economical to feed them, compared to the price he can get for honey. Lucas’ hives also have open mesh floors, and for the majority of the year, he keeps the entrance block totally open. He does not insulate the hive in the winter (though the wood is a good three inches think) and he uses his own wax to shape foundation that has naturally smaller cells. I wonder, that if the bees were not having to use so much energy keeping warm with all that draught, and were left with more of their own honey and not fed the sugar, whether they would need that now and then thyme oil? I often wonder that if honey were priced more honestly then beekeepers might not push the bees so far, but then again if the price did go up, maybe it would encourage more to replace it with the cheap sugar substitute ….
All of Lucas’ colonies were started as swarms, and I think this is one of the tricks of being successful in natural beekeeping. In my own personal experience, the hives I started with had been treated with chemicals, and when I stopped treating, the varroa rocketed and bees after one reason of another, did not survive. All colonies which started off as a swarm, survived. When the colony prepares to swarm, the queen stops laying. Varroa reproduce in the capped brood, and therefore the numbers are dramatically reduced. It’s a natural varroa control check. You ‘allow’ your bees to swarm and hey presto!
And now we’re off to the Czech Republic to see what we can learn . . .
What’s the Story in the Czech Republic?
Bumblebee on sunflower
Well, beekeeping here is very, very worrying. Not only are you told to treat your bees with chemicals, IT’S THE LAW! Can you believe it? If you refuse to suffocate your bees with toxic chemicals, you can face huge fines.
We met up with a ‘rogue’ natural beekeeper in Prague to get try and understand this madness. To get around this law, he has quite cleverly stated that he is less of a ‘beekeeper’ but more of a ‘bee guardian’. His logic is that if he simply leaves the bees to their own devices, then he’s not a bee ‘keeper’. It seems that here in Czech; the bees are treated like livestock. It’s a strange concept; wild creatures are encouraged out of their trees, domesticated for human benefit and to their detriment, their trees felled so they no longer have habitat, and then have a human world set of rules imposed on them. You are called an irresponsible beekeeper if you ‘allow’ your bees to swarm, and yet as a result, you then need to use chemicals. He reminds us that Czech has not long been out from under communist rule, and that as a result, the population is somewhat more accepting of enforced laws. It all makes me feel really really uneasy.
Things didn’t get much better. In our rogue beekeepers experience, he found that his bees did not survive without chemicals unless he removed all, yes all, brood during the autumn – I guess a sort of shook swarm type thing. It is supposed to mimic the natural break in the varroa cycle caused by the bees swarming; varroa cannot reproduce if there is no brood cells to multiply in. I wouldn’t call this natural…. But this was his experience of the only way to keep his bees alive without chemicals. Surely this however would then put you firmly back in the ‘beekeeper’ box? I also worry about this process because it stops the bees adapting naturally to the varroa. In my mind, the more humans interfere with the bees, the more dependent they become – they are becoming ever more domesticated, and this is to their peril as we have seen. I do however think it is better to do this, than dump a load of miticide in the hive…. But perhaps better in the long run to let the weaker ones die, and the stronger ones continue on.
Okay enough of the doom. Next we met a really wonderful man who had just written a book on Alternative beekeeping – Alternativy V Chovu Vcel A Pristupu K Nim by Radomil Hradil. At the moment it’s only in Czech; really hope he gets it translated into English soon because it looks like a real gem and a great resource for the natural beekeeping community.
Radomil begins to show us his tiny garden, and what he has planted for the bees. At first I think it’s sweet that he wants to show us his few pots – lobelia, marigolds (keeps the slugs away), sage, oregano, Anise Isop, and buckwheat.
Tiny pots full of life
But within these few flower pots, were miniscule fly like black dots that on a closer inspection, were tiny tiny solitary bees! The plants were buzzing with them! He then showed us the rest of his garden. The edges were ablaze with colour from a meadow seed mix he had planted the year before, and in a small section were an astounding variety of plants. St Johns Wort, Sunflowers, Flax, Calendula, Borage, Cosmos, Verbena and Phacelia (if you see blue pollen on a bees legs, it comes from Phacelia).
Edges of garden blooming with meadow mix
In the south-facing corner of the garden were a variety of homemade bee hotels, and I kid you not, the biggest one had every single tube and hole filled with a very happy bee (and many knocking to see if there was any room at the inn only to be rudely turned away at the door). There must have been over 300 solitary bees living happily in their little community.
All at home in this bee hotel
Radomil used cinder block as a base material to then poke various sizes of bamboo canes into. He said he experimented with sunflower stems, elder, and various other hollow stemmed plants but the bees preferred bamboo. Radomil also made a wonderful bee hotel with his daughter out of mud and straw – a kind of cob structure. You mush it all together in whatever fun shape you want, and then poke holes in it. This will be one I do with the kids in the schools from now on. I used to use bamboo but it’s a bit tricky to cut in a classroom, and I way prefer getting muddy hands!
Cob Bee Hotel
Radomil then proudly showed us his compost pile, his desert garden of sedum on the garage roof which he started from one sedum taken from a nearby rock, and the natural patches of plant succession where he stopped mowing. I have never seen so many pollinators in such a tiny space, and I was so surprised what you could do in such a small area.
He opens us his garden every summer to neighbours as part of an open garden scheme and shows others what can be done. Radomil’s garden is a stark comparison to that of next doors – the plastic grass and green shiny box bushes – not a morsel of food for anyone or any thing! It made me realise; we depend so much on bees for our food, but the bees themselves as a result of habitat destruction, no longer have enough food for themselves. In order for the bees to be able to help us, we need to help them. Plastic grass?! UGH.
Roof Garden with Sedum and rocks
One aspect that struck me about Radomil’s garden was that it was potentially temporary. All of the planting, all of the hard work, could be undone in an instant as it was only a rented house and garden. I used to struggle at the thought of spending money on plants, or leaving ‘my’ plants that I’ve nurtured as I rent also. But since keeping bees, I am so much more aware of just what an important lifetime our gardens are for pollinators, and that every plant is a gift to them. If you move on to another house and garden, what you leave behind could inspire the next generation of new arrivals with the coming of many wonderful insects, or may even unexpectedly teach someone the beauty of harvesting your own rhubarb. I now see it as leaving behind a wildlife sanctuary for those after me to be inspired by, and to keep enriching the land as I go.
Beautiful plants in pots
Radomil tells me that he believes that the primary cause of the bee decline is a result of our attitude; that we only exploit nature to yield our benefit. It stems from a shift in human consciousness when we started to separate ourselves from nature. We seem to have convinced ourselves that we are totally independent people; individuals who don’t need help from anyone else. Don’t get me started, but it reminds me of the selfie-stick… (Prepare for rant!) Instead of asking a friend or a passer by to take a photo, people all around the world at prominent tourist destinations are using a silly stick with their camera attached to the other end, walking aimlessly and posing at every occasion. Instead of being in the moment and appreciating this wonderful statue, or taking a quick snap of a gondola in Venice, the trend now is to take a photo with your face covering the majority it. I herby re-name it the selfish-stick! The era of the ego is here. (Rant over)
Radomil’s solution to the problem of our disconnect and lack of empathy with nature, is simple – stop… and observe. Tuning into nature by watching it, being in it, and understanding it. Hopefully, people can then begin to find themselves a bit more. Back when, perhaps when we lived in more close-knit communities, with strong cultural and family traditions, I imagine we would have felt more connected to place, our culture, and therefore felt more at one with yourself. Now I think, because we have lost a lot of this in favour of technology and individualism, I think we cling hold to a sense of home or self by buying the latest I phone, or loosing yourself in a game of Call of Duty. I guess with computer games, it creates a sense of purpose; in this virtual world you can make a change, have a voice, where in the real world your voice is drowned by corrupt politians and big industry.
Because we’re so driven to seek and hold onto the familiar when the world is spinning in such a crazy way, we do so at the detriment of nature. We have forgotten that it used to once speak to us, and we would listen and respond. Now, we don’t seem to be able to hear it over X Factor, or feel it through our four concrete walls. Let’s spend more time in nature, and perhaps then we’ll remember.
Hungry bees in Hungary?
Well we’re on our way to way to meet a prominent natural beekeeping in Hungary. I’m very excited. We pull up to the house, open the gate, and instantly cause chaos by letting out the very over excited dog onto the street. Off he goes…off he goes… yep he’s gone! We run after him for a very long time, and pull back a very grumpy dog to the yard. Lazlo our beekeeper doesn’t seem to be concerned by this whatsoever – phew!
Laszlo started keeping bees in the 1980s, and uses vertical octagonal shaped hives which he invented himself (Similar to the St John’s hive). These hives are good and thick at 5cm, and have top bars so that the bees are able to make their own comb. Great.
Hexagonal Vertical Hive
This however seems to be as far as the natural beekeeping goes. Lazlo opens the hive every week to control for swarming from May to June, feeds the bees with a milk protein, and has never ever tried to not treat with chemicals for varroa mite. He tells me believes colonies will die after three years if not treated with oxalic acid. I ask Laszlo what he thinks natural beekeeping is, and he tells me it’s about making a hive which is more like a tree; providing a more natural habitat for them to live in.
Milk Protein feed
Laszlo is definitely veering toward natural beekeeping, is a lovely lovely man, however in my mind, has completely missed the crux of the point… or was never in a position where he could risk not having bees. So WHAT IS natural beekeeping? Do we need a standardised definition?
Laszlo had 100 hives in his woodland apiary up until last winter, when he sold 70 of them, as he could no longer cope with that many. He tells us that Hungary has one of the highest densities of managed bees in Europe; one million beehives across 93,000 square km. Of this, there are 12,000 bee farms. It’s this high density that Laszlo tells me is the reason that he has never tried not treating. He believes that if he did, the bees would simply become re-infested by the surrounding hives. The reason he feeds with protein he tells me is because there is not enough pollen in July in the forests to get them through, and generally not enough flowers.
The forest where Laszlo keeps his bees, is surrounded by a nature reserve, and the forage from where I stood looked rich. So rich, that even wild hemp grew on the margins! This doesn’t mean it’s all year round nectar, particularly in the autumn and winter, no. However, what this does scream out, is that a very biodiverse area is not able to support that density of colonies. Surely instead of feeding protein and sugar, which are totally unnatural for bees, reducing the number of bees in an area is the way to go. The ancient Egyptians used to move hives down the Nile to follow the blooming flora, and in Italy, beekeepers do a similar migration scaling mountains. Migratory beekeeping in its modern form is not something I agree with however. For example, every year, 3/4 of all managed honeybee colonies in the states are moved to California to pollinate the almond monocultures, some of which are 600,000 square acres a field. But, perhaps keeping bees at distances apart to allow them ample forage, makes good sense.
Laszlo makes a living from the bees; from honey, from selling split colonies, and from giving talks and writing articles etc. If you are totally dependent on the bees for your income, I wonder if this sets up a scenario where you could therefore push them too far? If you have 20 orders for bee nucs, you might consider feeding them with additional protein and sugar to boost the likelihood of you being able to achieve this. You might take honey even if you feel deep down that the bees need it. A beekeeper with no honey? Cant be a good one then! A principle in permaculture gardening is that you should never depend on one core aspect – for example, don’t rely on that tap for water, because one day it might run out. Think about channeling rainwater into a water butt, or find land with a spring or river, as well as the tap. I think if you rely on one sole element, you are setting yourself up for a fall.
In August, Lazlo takes 10-30kg of honey, and leaves 10-15kg for the winter. Perhaps the bees would be able to survive without protein and sugar if this 10-30kg of honey wasn’t taken? I hear it time and time again from conventional beekeepers, “I need to feed because there isn’t enough food… yes I had a great honey crop this year”. In many places however, there is simply not enough forage to sustain bees. With colonies being brought in from all over the world, and new beekeepers buying nucs from commercial farms that are producing vast numbers of colonies, bee densities are building at unnatural rates and densities. If you set up a bait hive with wax inside, or collect your bees as a swarm, you are not adding to this unnaturally. What would be amazing, is if every beekeeper as a way of ensuring their bees had enough food, could plant the equivalent of 10m squared of year round forage per hive. Plant up the garden, plant up your friend’s garden, create a bee habitat in the local park…seed bomb! I think if you have bees, and particularly if you’ve brought them into an area, you have a moral responsibly to keep them fed – the natural way, not by lazily dumping a tub of sugar fondant in during the winter.
We drove three hours to our next destination. As we approached the house, we were met with the beaming smile of a tall man with big blonde hair and fabulous eyebrows – Gergo Szekely. “Why do you want to come and meet me? I’ve just started and know hardly anything about bees’. Oh bugger.
I’m preparing to write off Hungary and pretend I didn’t come, when Gergo begins to show us his top bar hive. With gentleness, calm and patience as he opens the hive like I’ve never seen before, I’m totally moved and inspired.
Gergo with top bar
Gergo tells me that he listens to the pitch of the bees buzzing to see if it’s OK to open them. Amazing. Tell me more. He was given the bees by a friend who lives in an area rich in birds. The bees, finding it difficult to find any suitable trees or cavities to nest in, were finding the rather comfortable and appropriately sized bird boxes a fine home, and so there were lots of swarms going.
Bees nesting in a bird box, and look at the natural eco floor! Lots of bugs to eat varroa!
Although Gergo is a really new beekeeper, I know instantly that he is going to be a good bee daddy. He tells me how he really wants to not treat for varroa, but the person who he asks about the bees told him that if they die because of the non treatment, then when you buy a new colony, they’ve been treated with chemicals, so its all the same. Because of this, Gergo at that moment in time, had decided that he might as well treat then. Hold on in there Gergo! *Cue me, to pipe in* I suggest to Gergo another way to look at things. Bees are not only a super organism at the colony level, but also at the population level. If the queen of a colony dies, it is not the end. The female worker bees, in the absence of queen pheromone, are able to lay eggs. As the worker bees are infertile and have not been able to mate, the eggs they lay produce male bees (male bees are a product of unfertilised eggs, and females from fertilised). As the hive slowly wiles away, males are born which then mate with new virgin queens from other colonies – the genes from this hive therefore live on, and give life to new colonies. If one hive dies, it is merely the death of a very small part of the puzzle, and life goes on. If you put poisons inside a hive, a whole world of bad opens up. Gergo has now decided not to treat his bees 🙂
Bees 1: Chemical Company 0
“Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has” Margaret Mead
And who knows, it could just be us beekeepers!
Switzerland – Biodynamic Bees, and a Question of Livestock or Biodiversity
Now is the ultimate test for Big Red (our wonderful and trustworthy campervan … I take back everything I said before!) as we begin the uphill approach to Switzerland.
She unflatteringly grunts and groans up the mountain pass, past perplexed goats, and deposits us safely to the welcome of our Swiss beekeeper and bee activist, Andreas Wermelinger of Free the Bees. Andreas has prepared an amazing lunch for us – thank god, because it seems we cannot afford to eat here in Switzerland. With a log hive at the drive, hives in trees, and a beautiful vege patch, I’m feeling confident that Andreas and Switzerland may be able to help us on our quest for solutions for the bees.
Warre hive in a tree – bees prefer to be higher up
Andreas cuts straight to the point. The first big problem is that in Switzerland, the honeybee is not considered part of the biodiversity. The Swiss government (along with many other EU countries) is still unsure whether the honeybee is a production animal, or whether it is wild. There is a countrywide biodiversity strategy, and yet no one is looking out for the honeybees. Oddly, even though no distinction has yet been made, the law treats them as livestock. Each hive must be registered with the bee inspector, be inspected by them, and therefore must have moveable frames. What do they think about the log hives and warres? It’s a gray area… for now. When Andreas asked the authorities about considering the honeybees as an endangered species, their response was “Well they’re everywhere”. And here lies the problem – Switzerland, similar as we found in Hungary, has far too higher density of managed honeybee colonies – twice as high as Germany for example. These of course are the growingly weakening bees, being propped up with sugar, protein and miticides. And of course, these are the bees that are ‘surviving’ – if you count merging weak hives together, regularly replacing queens or supplying new queens to otherwise dying colonies, that is.
A new hive design being trialled by Andreas – terracotta pots! The premise being that bees live naturally in rocks in the mountains. The terracotta naturally absorbs water moisture, but it does need to have a roof as is not waterproof.
The second problem (sorry convectional beekeepers) lies here again. Hobby beekeepers, instead of keeping bees for the pollination service, the biodiversity, giving the bees a roof of their heads and taking enough honey for themselves, are choosing to veer more toward being producers of vast amounts of honey. In Switzerland, as with many other countries, the GDP derived from honey is miniscule, and yet the economic value of pollination? Priceless…. Incalculable surely. And yet here, the value of the pollination service is placed far below that of selling honey. Andreas is trying to create a scale of natural beekeeping techniques and philosophies so that conventional beekeepers can begin to move more toward the natural, for the sake of the bees and biodiversity as a whole. One idea, is to encourage beekeepers to keep around 20% of their hives completely natural – no miticides, no swarm control, no excessive honey harvest, to enrich wild populations and strengthen the gene pool. Really interestingly, Andreas quotes a statistic from Seeley – ‘In nature, roughly 80% of honeybees die during their first winter’. Wow. Well there we go! We need to stop transfixing on our western notion of permanent growth and increase, and accept that the rhythms of nature are slower and more long term – for a reason.
Andreas has come across a problem in his plan however. Due to the high densities of honeybees, and the lack of forage produced from monocultures and modern farming techniques, he has found it virtually impossible to truly keep bees ‘naturally’. The problem lies with the question of ‘To super, or not to Super’?! (Adding boxes to give the bees more space, and often, to make more honey for the beekeeper). Over a period of five years, Andreas found that if he did not add any supers, and left the hive as a fixed volume (as is found in nature – see ‘Tree Beekeeping in Poland’) the natural swarming process kept the levels of varroa mite sufficiently down. But, the bees starved if he didn’t feed them. Not 80% of his bees died – all of them. If he did add supers, the bees didn’t starve because of the extra honey they were able to store, however the unnatural addition of space, postponed the swarming, and so varroa level shot up, and would die without treatment. So it seems that with the current natural landscape as it is, there needs to be an element of ‘interference’ or help. Not always of course, where hive densities are lower, and forage is better.
Observation hive. Andreas this year is experimenting with mini scorpions, which have been found to eat varroa and keep levels down.
Now bees have taken me to some really cool places, and have also gotten me into some really odd situations too come to think of it. Every now and then, and always without notice, the local Bristolian pest control guy turns up at my door with a cardboard box, tied VERY well closed, hands it over (to either me or one of my unsuspecting housemates) and off he trots. Box-o-bees! “I kill wasps, ants, flees, bug bites – you name it.. honeybees if I have to” – YES I’ll take those bees thank you! But today, the bees have taken us to a fabulous man who works at a rather phenomenal place. Johannes Wirz, a wonderfully sprightly and intelligent fellow, is the senior scientist at theGoetheanum, the institution created by Steiner to teach and practice his principles of spiritual science – Anthroposophy. The agricultural arm of this, is called biodynamics whereby food is grown organically, and with consideration of all interconnected elements, including the effect of the moon, planets and the ecosystem as a whole.
Inside the Goetheanum
So how are the bees biodynamic? Well, to produce biodynamic honey, there are a few rules that have to be followed. The bees must be allowed to make their own comb. They must be allowed to swarm. There is to be no division made within the brood – if you put bees in a national or a warre hive for example, you provide boxes with gaps between the boxes – this creates a gap in the brood therefore. The land on which you keep the bees must be at least 50% organic, and preparations used on the soil. And lastly, you can only use organic acids such as oxalic or formic acid for varroa control, as opposed to inorganic chemicals which mites have been shown to be resistant against. I’m not going to lie, I was really shocked that any acids are allowed to be used full stop. Although treatment is only given if a varroa threshold is passed, (which is far better than blanket treating) natural selection is still being postponed, chemical companies are still having their pockets lined, and people are buying honey thinking the entire process has been ‘organic’ when in fact nasty substances have been used … well its what I thought anyway. The same applies to organic honey – the bees themselves can be treated, as long as the honey is taken off before the treatment, and the land is organic. It’s FAR better than conventional of course, but it really makes me think that we need a ‘Treatment Free’ logo on honey, for greater transparency.
Johannes is a keen feeder of sugar syrup, and tells me it’s very important to make sure the bees have enough food when they go into winter. If you rely on winter-feeds of sugar fondant (hardened sugar to replicate honey) you risk starvation as the winter cluster of bees is often very immobile, and they cannot move to find it. So heft those hives, and if you’re a feeder, make sure the bees are sorted before winter sets in. When making sugar syrup, it is very important to use at least 5-10% of the bees own honey (always a good idea if you are going to take some, to save some for emergency feeding) so that there are lots of the essential minerals and vitamins. Johannes also steeps a beautiful variety of flowers to add to the diversity of nutrients – chamomile, calendula, borage, St John’s Wort, Fern, Rosemary to name a few. A pinch of salt is also added – for crystalline forces.
Another really interesting aspect that Johannes mentions is a way in which bees communicate throughout the hive. With naturally built comb, all attached to the sides of the cavity, bees use the comb to vibrate through, passing messages easily around the entire nest. If you add removable frames into the mix, everything is separated, and therefore vibrational communication is stopped. Also, studies have shown that if you allow bees to build their own comb, the likelihood and severity of the disease Foulbrood, is dramatically decreased. Beekeepers tend to use wax foundation (a thin layer of hexagonal shaped wax from bees all around the world) to increase honey production – it allows honeycomb to be spun in a mechanical spinner, and it allows more honey to be produced as the bees have not had used so much energy building as much wax.
After visiting Switzerland, is has never been clearer for the need of some clarity – bees should be left considered a wild animal as they rightly are, and we need a standard for natural beekeeping. By it’s very nature however, natural beekeeping is a protest movement, developed from peoples collective rejections of conventional methodologies, and so the very idea of trying to standardise it seems to fly in the face of the rebellious nature of the movement. What a standard could though achieve is the shifting of greater numbers of conventional honey producers over to a form of natural, and give greater transparency to treatment free honey. Hopefully, the work done in Switzerland could prove to be an important model for the rest of world. But what we must be careful of, is this slow creeping in of corrupt and blanket law enforcement, like we’ve seen in many other countries regarding treatment and inspection. If I know UK natural beekeepers though, it would not be a battle the authorities would want to fight….
So after feeling a bit deflated by the lack of chemical free beekeeping, meeting Dagmar Schütt (wife of Jan Michael) in Northern France was a breath of fresh air – “Nope, we’ve never treated our bees” – Hurray! Dagmar and Jan have been looking after their bees for five years, in a variety of hives…
This is a Traditional Japanese Beehive, and is skinnier than a normal warre (22x22x15 cm)
This way, if you did want to harvest a little bit of honey, you don’t have to take such a large amount as you would taking a normal sized warre box off. Dagma also feels that keeping the bees in smaller volumes, helps them keep varroa at bay.
Krainer Bauernstock – a traditional Slovenian beehive
Die Bienenkiste – a German beehive
In these five years, out of ten hives, only three have died – one swarm had their queen die, and the other two could be put down to bad weather and wasp robbing.
Jan and Dagmar only ever begin a colony as a natural swarm, and find that keeping the hives small, really helps. The hives are well insulated with woodchip, some have eco floors, but none are open mesh. Last year, Jan was able to harvest 5 kilos of honey from one hive – beautiful treatment free honey!
Home, to meet Heidi Hermann and David Heaf
We are well and truly back from our European Bee Research trip … No longer are we waking up next to rivers and meadows having forgotten where we parked the van the night before, and clumsily trying to communicate in a mixture of strange French, German and Spanish. But, to ease us back in, we thought a Natural Beekeeping Research trip would not be complete without meeting two of our favourite natural beekeepers.
Up to Northern Wales to meet David Heaf….
We arrive in Gwynedd to rain and grey skies – a perfect day of course to meet the bees! We are greeted by David and we amble down country lanes to a very beautiful apiary, overlooking the sea. One of my first questions for David, is of course, how does he ensure his bees are able to be healthy with varroa? “Well, I don’t really do anything”! Oh how I love the British. And this sums it up really – leave your bees alone, and they will solve their own problems. Well … job done! I’ll be on my way then : 0)
David Heaf’s Apiary overlooking the sea
There are a variety of hives here, and David proudly shows me his Einraumbeute Hive (The One Box Hive or Golden Hive) – a deep framed trough hive which expands horizontally rather than vertically. It is well insulated with double walls and straw within, and a woodchip quilt box.
The Inner Straw Wall Insulation of the Golden Hive
David tells me of some research recently done by Derek & Elaine Mitchell, who put a 20 watt heat source into a variety of hives and natural cavities and measured the maintained temperature rise:
- Natural tree cavity (6 inch thick walls) – 60degrees C
- Skep, sealed with cow dung – 22C
- Polystyrene hive (various types) – 22C
- Warré, walls just over 1 inch thick, 4 inch thick sawdust quilt on top – 16C
- Kenyan TBH with thick top bars, directly under a flat roof – 14C
- Wooden National – 7C to 10 C
The Golden Hive was unfortunately not tested, but it is very much on its way to mimicking the thickness of a log hive, and so in theory, the bees can therefore use less energy having to keep warm. What a difference between the log hive, and a national! I used to get told by conventional beekeepers “Don’t Molly-coddle your bees” but if you keep them in really thin hives, you have already put them at a disadvantage, and so come winter, you really do need to increase the insulation (or perhaps keep it insulated in the summer too).
The Wild Hive (Ruche Sauvage)
The Wild Hive is a cylindrical hive, which again is mimicking a cavity in a tree, and reduced the amount of cold corners where varroa can thrive.
The Warre Hive
Not many people out there are more knowledgable about The Warre Hive than David Heaf, so do click on the link and I’ll let him explain ….
David has not treated his hives at all since 2009. Before his losses were on average 15% and are now 20% (which included a very bad winter where 60% were lost). He relies on swarms for his colonies, and sets up bait hives. He has found that his bees can get through a winter with as little as 9 kilos of honey. However, this year, what with the harsh summer, almost half of his hives now need to be fed – so it’s definitely advisory to feed your bees this autumn, especially if they are swarms, or honey was taken this year or last.
Our next stop was to meet Heidi at the Natural Beekeeping Trust, a sustainable beekeeping charity based down Sussex. The Natural Beekeeping Trust promotes treatment free, bee centred apiculture – giving to the bees, rather than just taking.
Heidi is one of the directors, and to me, is a real life bee whisperer – she seems to have a connection to the bees that I’ve rarely seen. We take a walk through the garden to have a look at some of the gorgeous beehives, and find to our surprise, a tiny little swarm of honeybees clustered on one the hives.
This is unusual in September – the virgin queen in this swarm will need to mate with many males (when there are very few around at this time of year), start laying eggs, and collect enough honey, to get her and her bees through the winter. Swarming ‘season’ tends to be April-August time, when flowers are plentiful, and male bees a-plenty too. Heidi gently tries to encourage them into a skep, only for the bees to decide to take off, and swarm around her for a good 20 minutes, before settling down again. “A mystery… the more time I spend with the bees, the less I know” she Heidi. ‘What’s wrong with your bees Heidi” jokes Peter Brown, another director. This is a mind set I really appreciate, and to me, is one of someone who really gets it. The more humans think they know they know about the world, the less beautiful life will be, and the more destruction will ensue.
Heidi decided that after a few years of beekeeping, she did not want to be on the ‘treatment treadmill’ – to constantly prop up the bees on medication was unsustainable. Heidi believed a balance between the parasite and host could be achieved, and in this apiary, it is so. In the beginning, a few bees were lost, but those that survived, reproduced and created stronger, healthier bees able to survive without chemicals.
Heidi personally has been keeping bees for over ten years, treatment free… Now to convince the rest of the beekeepers out there! Heidi muses that people believe the varroa might is the number one enemy of the honeybees, when it is in fact, the humans. Varroa loves a slightly cooler temperature than the temperatre of the hive, and so conventional beekeepers create the perfect conditions for them by constantly opening the hive.
Bees propolising a skep
I ask Heidi what she believes is key to healthy bees from the beekeepers point of view. First of all she says, it is making sure you know the necessary preferences of the honeybees. This, is to live somewhere high up, to be in a well insulated hollow as warmth mainatance is key, be careful and considered with hive opening and interference, and definatly not be adding unnatural chemicals into the hive.
Gladly, Heidi is also of the opinion, that even the organic acids accepted in many organic and biodynamic circles, should neither be used – the bees have their own abilities to heal. Our belief that we need to put something into the hive to allow it to survive, Heidi notes, is a clear mark of our arrogance.
Here at the Natural Beekeeping Trust, there are many types of hives used to provide a home to the bees.
The Golden Hive
The Warre Hive
The Top Bar Hive
And the Sun Hive
Designed by German sculptor, Guenther Mancke, The Sun Hive is made from woven rye straw, and has wooden structures inside to give the bees supports to build from. The shape mimics the natural form of a colony, and is suspended from a height which bees prefer.
Inside The Sun Hive. The wooden pieces allow sections to be taken out (designed this way to allow the inspection by bee inspectors) and a waxen cloth cover is lain over the structure to provide greater warmth, and to prevent the frames from being attached to the rye. It is often coated in cow dung to waterproof it, and again, add extra warmth.
Heidi does not necessarily believe there is a ‘bee crisis’ but more of a crisis within ourselves. If there was a shift in consciousness from imposing our own thoughts and conclusions upon the bees, rather than asking and listening to the bees needs, and what they are telling us, Heidi believes this would benefit both ourselves, and the bees.