What’s in a name? that which we call honey by any other word would taste as sweet.
I do struggle not having anyone to work with to learn my beekeeping. Sure there is a lot of help available online and plenty of information in books. This doesn’t tend to be too much help though when you pick up a top bar and the comb breaks off. What you want then is someone standing next to you telling you want to do not a glossary of terms. Also, it seems no matter how brilliant the forums are for support, there are still 101 different opinions for every situation. As such I am left with the constant feeling that I am just bungling along with the bees surviving in-spite of me rather than because of me.
I have joined a local beekeeping association to gain some local support, but all of them keep nationals. Contrary to what I know a lot of natural beekeepers experience, there is certainly no hostility towards my kenyan top bar hive antics, but neither is there any experience to draw on. The approach is entirely different and so is the objective. In my opinion, much of the gulf is as a result of what is used as a marker of success for beekeeping. The consensus in conventional circles is the more honey you produce the better the beekeeper you are, the more honey a colony produces the healthier the bees are and the better the queen. This approach seems to persist irrespective of overwintering success and completely contrary to swarming. Swarming seems to be considered a marker of poor quality rather than an indicator that the colony has been sufficiently successful to consider itself capable of propagating. Until we can decide/agree on the best means of assessing the “success” of a colony and for that matter the beekeeper I think it may be quite difficult to find completely common ground.
I greatly dislike the word “natural” in how it is used day-to-day. It strikes of “low-fat”, “no added sweeteners”, and “organic”. As a scientist organic to me is anything containing carbon but it has come to mean something different to society as a whole. You can therefore understand how torn I feel about describing myself as a “natural” beekeeper. There have been a few other terms bandied about such as ‘balanced beekeeping’ and ‘bee-centric beekeeping’ which although describe things a little better seem somewhat damning or accusatory. You are ultimately forced to explain what you mean by calling yourself a natural beekeeper in the end anyway. I would like to say that I chose natural beekeeping for a number of high-minded ideals and for the very principle of the thing, but the reality is far from it. I am by nature somewhat faddish in my hobbies and was worried that I would end up with hundreds of pounds of beekeeping equipment laying alongside my climbing gear, lathe, and road bike in the shed. Basically, I was interested in giving beekeeping a go and didn’t want to shell out a large amount of money to get going only to find it didn’t take. So my plan was to start out cheap and spend later if I stuck with it. Through natural beekeeping I was able to find free plans for a top bar hive which I could make myself with the scrap wood I had in the shed (along with some of the tools I purchased for previous fads), and all the information I need to catch a swarm. The natural beekeeper online community is also incredibly supportive and encouraging and I soon found myself with a troop of digital mentors. So it was in July 2012 that I built a hive, a bait hive, and caught my first swarm within a few weeks of each other. As with all who are bitten (or stung) by the honey-bee bug my interest quickly grew. I bought the equipment that I previously avoided and integrated into the “conventional beekeeper” (this is what natural beekeepers call everyone else) community. At first they were a little surprised that I didn’t wear sandals and favour tofu. They were a little more surprised by the explanations for my practice being founded on known scientific principles. There is often bad feeling between the natural and conventional beekeeper communities and I think this is largely because both groups feel the other is basically saying “you are not doing the best by your bees”. No one sets out as a beekeeper to hurt bees; so this can obviously result in defensiveness and animosity when it is suggested you are. In my opinion, much of this misunderstanding seems to be around how each group measures success. For conventional beekeepers a general marker of success is how much honey is produced. The idea being the amount of honey produced by a hive is an indicator of its health, the queen’s vitality, the colony’s “happiness”. The honey can also be an essential crop when it comes to recouping the initial outlay of becoming a beekeeper. Honey is of less importance to the natural beekeeper community. Success is measured more by how much or how little support a colony requires in order to remain viable. Two hives of my hives share genetics having a mother and daughter queen. This line has remained untreated (in any chemical sense) for 4 years for varroa. Build up well in spring and have never shown any signs of brood diseases. They throw a single swarm every year, annoyingly in the second week of July. These bees are so frugal as to make it through North Yorkshire winters occupying a single Warré box (approx 18 liters) or more than one occasion and refuse syrup pre-winter when it is offered. To say that this colony is unsuccessful on the basis that I don’t harvest any honey from them I think is missing something critical about what it means to keep bees. We all know that if you ask three beekeepers a question you end up with five different answers and this is a truth regardless of the community asked. We spend too much of our time arbitrarily dividing ourselves into smaller and smaller groups based on what we have in common. Rather we should spend our time finding out why people do things differently and learning from those differences. Beekeeping practice and dogma has changed little over the years despite advances in our understanding of husbandry, genetics, and pharmacology and the time has come for us to open our ears and lift up our eyes to ensure we ALL continue to do the best by our bees.