Why Honey Bees Need Bee-Centered Beekeepers
Bee-centered beekeeping starts with the premise, “the bees know best what’s best for the bees.” We need to let the bees teach us. Bee-centered beekeeping puts the health and vitality of the bees foremost, and respects the collective intelligence of each colony. It is a thoughtful, observant, low-invasive, low-interventive stewardship of honey bees. The goal of bee-centered beekeeping is is to return honey bees to the vibrancy that they deserve and that the earth needs by propagating hardy, treatment-free, regionally-adapted colonies that can survive and thrive in their region – both in monitored hives and in the wild. And, in so doing, make their region more flowering and fruitful. A regionally-adapted honey bee colony would be called an ecotype – a genetically distinct geographic variety, population or race within a species, which is adapted to specific environmental conditions. Bee-centered beekeepers may have the long-term goal of actually encouraging these ecotypes to swarm and thus re-populate their region.
All of the challenges that honey bees face today are man-made. Beginning with the industrial revolution and “progressing” through our current system of big agriculture, we have made it more and more difficult for honey bees to survive and thrive. But, even apart from all of the challenges that industrialized food production has created for honey bees, there is now growing concern that even the way that conventional beekeepers have kept honey bees for the past 150 years has added to the stresses honey bees are having to cope with. All of these factors have combined to finally push honey bees beyond their ability to adapt and have created the alarming phenomenon we’ve witnessed in recent years called Colony Collapse Disorder.
The questions being raised today about conventional beekeeping practices include:
Is the volume of the boxes we’re keeping honey bees in too large, such that it is difficult for them to control their environment and create the healthy micro-ecology they need to establish in order to live in symbiotic relationship with the 8000+ other organisms that live in the hive with them?
Has the use of smooth wooden boxes inhibited the production of propolis that would exist inside a hive if the bees were living in the interior of a rough hollow tree? In other words, have our smooth wooden boxes (unnatural for honey bees) kept them from producing the amount of propolis they would normally produce in the wild, thus degrading the health of the environment inside the hive? (Propolis is naturally anti-bacterial and anti-viral.)
Has supplemental feeding interrupted the natural cycle of brood production, followed by rest, that queen bees need in order to regenerate their cells and stay healthy, strong, and productive? In other words, has supplemental feeding contributed to the shorter and shorter life-spans of queens?
Has the practice of removing the bees’ stored honey, and feeding them sugar syrup instead, contributed to poor nutrition in honey bees and thus degraded their ability to cope with all of the other stresses they’re facing? (Imagine trying to face many of life’s toughest challenges at once… while having the flu at the same time.)
Has the practice of using treatments to control Varroa Mites, rather than allowing the bees to adapt, contributed to weaker bees and more resistant pests? (This phenomenon is exactly like the phenomenon we as humans have created for ourselves with our over-use of antibiotics.)
Has the practice of mitigating swarming, and thus removing the brood production breaks that are natural to the honey bees’ yearly cycle, contributed to the proliferation of Varroa mites beyond what the bees would otherwise have to deal with if we allowed them to swarm? (Swarming is how honey bees reproduce – one colony becomes two. And, a brood break in a hive interrupts the reproductive cycle of Varroa mites.)
Has our constant intervention and removal of the bees’ carefully constructed work inside the hive (our removal of burr comb, removal of cross-comb, removal of drone comb, removal of propolis, moving of frames, swapping of boxes, etc.) been detrimental to the bees’ efforts to create a healthy, sustainable environment? Have we disrupted at best, and destroyed at worst, the very components of the hive that they have been so purposefully constructing in order to survive and thrive?
I’ll finish this brief look at conventional beekeeping practices with Michael Bush’s quote: “Most beekeeping problems are caused by solutions.”
Below is a short list of just a few of the things that we know the bees are attempting to manage inside their hive. This is probably just the tip of the iceberg. As Dr. Thomas D. Seeley, who has studied honey bees for decades, has said, “A honey bee hive is a treasure chest of mysteries.”
- Amount of ventilation and its route
- Ambient temperature of the hive
- Specific temperature of the brood
- Specific temperature of the queen in the winter cluster
- Relative humidity
- pH balance
- O2/CO2 balance
- Smoothness of surfaces
- Structural integrity (sturdiness) of the hive
- Amount of drawn comb
- Amount of drone comb
- Bee space between all surfaces
- Travel routes between combs
- Ability to remove dead bees and otherwise keep their hive clean
- Ability to guard their entrance
- Communication levels using scent
- Communication levels using vibration
- Antibacterial qualities
- Antiviral qualities
- Balance of worker population
- Balance of drone population
- Health and vitality of the queen
- Amount of water
- Amount of stored honey
- Amount of stored pollen
- Amount of bee bread
- Orientation of stores to the brood
- Orientation of stores for winter cluster access
- Orientation of stores for winter insulation
- Symbiotic relationship with 8,000+ other organisms
- Levels of harmful pests
Below is a chart published by Dr. Thomas D. Seeley as part of his article in the March, 2017, issue of the American Bee Journal. Dr. Seeley is the professor of the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell University. In the left column is a list that describes how honey bees live in the wild. On the right is a corresponding list showing what honey bees are subjected to by conventional beekeeping practices.
If you’ve read this far, I thank you! Thank you for your heart for honey bees and for your appreciation of how important they are to the health of the earth. I hope this information has helped you to understand why I believe that a low-invasive, low-interventive, bee-centered approach to beekeeping, that respects the colony’s innate intelligence, is what honey bees need from beekeepers.
In my opinion, as bee-centered honey bee stewards, there is no reason why we cannot provide a home for honey bees that looks exactly like the list on the left! In response to that, I am starting a new company that will produce hive components that will allow honey bees to live much more closely to the way they would in the wild, and that will help to give them back the control they need to effectively manage all of the things they are working together to manage inside their hive.
Here is a short video of Dr. Seeley speaking about some of these concepts:
Finally, here’s a look at what big agriculture has done to honey bees. Because the almond orchards in central California are a mono-crop, the orchards are a wasteland for pollinators 50 weeks out of the year. No native pollinators can live there. So, now, virtually all of the hives owned by commercial, migratory beekeepers in the U.S. have to be trucked to California to pollinate the almond trees during the two weeks that they are flowering. My understanding is that this is somewhere between 1 and 2 million hives. This season, 2017, there was a flood in the central valley of California. This is what the bees were subjected to:
Please understand that I am not degrading commercial, migratory beekeepers. Almonds are a multi-billion-dollar global market and these almond trees have to be pollinated. It’s our system of food production that is broken. Big agriculture created this.