How Do I Keep Bees?
This is entirely down to your own philosophies in life. We believe bees deserve to be treated with love and respect, their health is of paramount importance, and so should be nurtured rather than manipulated. Here is a video showing you the basics of beekeeping followed by a video explaining how you can learn to understand your bees without even opening the hive.
What is Natural Beekeeping?
There isn’t really a hard set definition – but it’s basically putting the bees’ needs first, over the demands of humans. Honey for example, was once considered sacred; a gift from the bees. It was not until the 19th century, that it began to be sold at all. It was about this time, that nature began to be exploited, and modern industrial farming emerged. Conventional beekeeping promotes that bee health can be achieved through suppression of natural reproduction, regular hive inspections, artificial breeding, and chemical use inside the hive, to control for varroa mites. I’ll also add, that varroa were accidentally introduced because bee geneticists tried to make European bees more productive in honey! Conventional beekeeping today reflects the notion that nature needs to be controlled – that we know best. Adversely, natural beekeepers allow bees to exist and function, as nature intended, rather than forcing them to exist as people think they should.
I’ll run through a few key ways in which conventional beekeeping today tends to function.
Removal of honey and replacement with sugar. To make one pound of honey, bees have flown the equivalent of twice around the world, collecting nectar from around 5 million flowers. They don’t do this just for the fun of it. Honey is the food store to get the bees through the winter, and it has nearly 200 different vital nutrients, compared to sugar which has none. Under the microscope, the stomach of a honeybee fed only sugar, is shrivelled and dark, and their immune system is hugely compromised.
Suppression of swarming. Honeybees swarm to reproduce, and this allows genetic diversity. Bees have evolved to achieve high genetic diversity for the last 150 million years, allowing them to be adaptable and survive changes in landscape, climate and the emergence of pests. Conventional beekeepers prevent this natural process, often killing and replacing queens to keep them young and fertile, for higher honey yields. It is not uncommon to import queens from outside of the UK, bringing with them risk of new diseases and pests.
The use of neurotoxins and acids to control varroa mites. Varroa is a huge problem – small mites suck the blood of bees, weaken them, and open the bees up to illness, which can lead to the death of a colony. Conventional beekeepers will apply chemical treatments within the hive to control mite numbers. Natural beekeepers have shown however, that hives which are opened less frequently or not at all, are left with ample supplies of honey rather than sugar, and do not have their reproduction suppressed, have equal if not better rates of survival. Natural beekeepers leave the bees with their honey and only take what is a genuine surplus, allow them to swarm, and do not put chemicals inside the hive. Instead, hives are fiddled with less, kept well insulated, and the bees are allowed to adapt to the mites naturally. This is a fierce debate however – bar industrial beekeepers, who do so for profit, most beekeepers believe that using chemicals is what is best for their bees – it’s seen as a very responsible thing to do. However, it seems that generations of beekeepers, nurtured by the chemical companies’ influence and modern farming notions, have given rise to beekeepers with skewed, and inherently compromising, ideas on how to ‘look after’ bees.
Further reading and resources:
Want to find others who keep bees naturally? Click here for groups around the UK.
What can I Plant for Bees?
Bees are losing habitat all around the world due to intensive monoculture-based farming practices, pristine green (but flowerless) suburban lawns and from the destruction of natural landscapes. In the UK, we have lost 97% of our wildflower meadows in the last 40 years due to fertiliser over-useage. Just by planting flowers in your garden, or in a planter will help provide bees with forage. Avoid chemically treating your plants as chemicals can leach into pollen and negatively affect the bees. Plant plenty of the same type of bloom together, as bees like volume of forage. It’s also really important to plant flowers which flower in the early spring, autumn and winter, as bees could be on the verge of starvation and need a vital lifeline of nectar.
Here are a few examples of good plant varieties:
Spring – crocus, daphodils, helbores, borage, blue bells, pussy willow, crap apple, hawthorn.
Summer – Lavander, thyme, rosemary, chives, wildflowers.
Winter – Snowdrops, Mahonia, helibores, ivy, winter jasmine, winter flowering honeysuckle, sweet box, winter clematis, cyclamen, primroses.
How can I Help Bees?
- Weeds can be a good thing!
Contrary to what we’re made to think, a lawn full of clover and dandelions is actually good! It’s a haven for honeybees and all other native pollinators too such as solitary bees and bumbles. Wildflowers, many of which we might classify as weeds, are some of the most important food sources for bees. If some of these are “weeds” you chose to get rid of (say you want to pull out that bramble bush that’s taking over), let it bloom first for the bees, or just trim it back.
- Don’t use chemicals and pesticides to treat your lawn or garden
The chemicals and pest treatments you might put on your garden can cause damange to the honeybees systems. These treatments are especially damaging if applied while the flowers are in bloom as they will get into the pollen and nectar and be taken back to the bee hive where they also get into the honey—which in turn means they can get into us. Pesticides, specifically neo-nicotinoid varieties have been one of the major culprits in Colony Collapse Disorder. Instead of putting down slug killer, dig a pond to encourage frogs into the garden, and make your garden a wildlife haven for hedgehogs – the slugs will be hugely reduced.
- Buy local, organic food from a producer that you know
Buying local means eating seasonally, and buying locally from a producer that you know which means you can be sure if that food is coming from a monoculture or not. This is much easier in the summer when you can get your food from a local farmer’s market. Another option is to get your food from a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) Farm. Even better, is to grow it yourself, and teach others too! Keep in mind, Organic Certification can be expensive and you may find many great farmers and beekeepers with excellent food and honey that isn’t organically certified simply because they don’t produce a high quantity or opt for the expense of certification. Don’t let this get in the way of supporting them and if you’re worried about their products—have a conversation with them. A huge challenge for beekeepers is to keep their bees in an area where there is no chemical spray within 3 miles, as this is really what is required to guarantee truly organic honey.
- Learn how to be a beekeeper with sustainable practices
See notes on Natural Beekeeping
- Buy local, raw, treatment-free honey
The honey you buy directly sends a message to beekeepers about how they should keep their bees. For this reason, and for your own personal health, strive to buy local, raw honey that is from hives that are not treated with chemicals. It can be hard to find out what is truly “local” and truly “raw”–and even harder yet to find any that is untreated. Here’s a few guidelines: If you find it in the supermarket and it’s imported from China, don’t buy it. There have been a number of cases recently of chemically contaminated honey coming from China. If it’s coming from the supermarket, but it doesn’t say the words “pure” or “raw” and you can’t read it in the description that it’s untreated by chemicals, don’t buy it. If it’s untreated, the label will say, as this is an important selling point. Go to your farmer’s market and shake hands with the beekeepers you meet. There are beekeepers at nearly every farmer’s market selling their honey and other products. Have a conversation with them, find out what they are doing to their hives, and how they are keeping their bees. If they are thoughtful, respectful beekeepers who keep their bees in a sustainable, natural way, then make a new friend and support them!
We only ever take a very small small amount of honey (if at all) so do contact us to see if we have any left!
- Make the government know how you feel
If you disagree with the extent or use of pesticides in the UK, or general farming procedures – let your MPs, and the government know!
Can I Put a Beehive in a School?
Yes, it is very possible, and is a wonderful way to get the kids outdoors, and connecting to nature. Getting the OK is really down to the head teacher we’ve found; they like to know its safe. So what we often do is section off an area either with a locked gate, or create a bee area a little away with a small fence even to act as a visual barrier. A ‘Bees, please be careful’ sign can be a good idea. It’s important to have an epi pen and junior epi pen at the school just incase of anaphylaxis.
If you could like any help from us, please do get in touch
Tree or Log Beekeeping
Tree Beekeeping is a 1,000 year old practice of keeping bees in slots, cut high above the ground into living pine, lime and oak trees, akin to the natural homes of bees. Our friend Jonathan Powell in his article “Tree Beekeeping: Reviving a Lost Tradition” writes in more detail…
The tree hive is designed so that the tree is not harmed in any way. Traditionally care of the bees and the tree was passed on from one generation to the next, and the tree was protected by law. In this video filmed in Normandy, Jonathan shows you how to make a tree hive. More information on tree hives can also be found via André Wermelinger’s website, ‘Free the Bees‘ , as well as on our blog.
Log hives, a form of tree hive, can be created from trees blown down in storms or felled when at risk of falling. On his website “Bee Kind Hives“, Natural Beekeeper Matthew Somerville writes about the theory and practice of these beautiful hives, which can be placed high in trees or on the ground. For more information into this method of caring for the bees, please see this video in which Matt Somerville and John Haverson demonstrate how to construct a Cévennes style Trunk Hive.