Thoughts from the first Natural Beekeeping Conference

In August Eloise and I spent a thoroughly enjoyable weekend at the first ever Natural Beekeeping Conference. There were many speakers covering a variety of topics and although we are unable to cover a whole weekends worth in depth, we would like to share some of the key thoughts we came away with. We have tried to write about different things, although there is bound to be some cross-over…

The conference ethos:

The event was hosted by the Natural Beekeeping Alliance, formed by Friends of the Bees and the Natural Beekeeping Trust. As David Heaf pointed out in his opening address ‘natural beekeeping’ is actually an oxymoron. Perhaps we should view beekeeping on a scale of artificiality or intervention, with each of us choosing specific aspects in accordance with our own world view.

Scale of Artificiality

• Put bees in a container
• Provide them with top bars
• Provide frames and foundation
• Put in a mesh floor
• Super or nadir the hive
• Open the hive
• Transport the hive
• Feed the colony; forage, honey, sugar
• Remove honey
• Control swarming
• Suppress drone brood production
• Put in a queen excluder
• Artificial queen breeding
• Remove all honey and feed sugar
• Medicate

All beekeepers want their bees to survive and thrive, they intervene with the best of intentions. Bees are facing a complex array of challenges which are evolving fast in our modern world, so a seemingly effective solution 20 years ago may no longer seem so. Our best way forward is to facilitate the bees in their survival, trying to understand their needs and the effects each of our interventions has, so we can reach an informed decision each and every time we do something (or not).

The conference itself was held under canvas in a valley near the Malverns. That may sound daunting to some, but it was civilised enough to have a bar, wonderful open air hot showers and great local food. The site centered on the ‘village green’, a circle of benches surrounding a fire, which made it really easy to meet and chat with others. For more information see the Green and Away website.

Elinor: things that made me think WOW:

The importance of swarming
Swarming is the natural way for honeybees to increase their colonies and maintain genetic diversity. It also has a useful role in the management of varroa mites and tropilaelaps as the broodless period interrupts their breeding as well. If the bees build their own comb, as with a top bar hive, this occurs in both the old and new colonies.

Bees as part of our ecosystem

The modern view of honeybees is often that of domesticated stock used for honey production. In fact, although we may care for honeybees in our hives (usually with honey production as a priority) they remain a part of the greater ecosystem and of the wild bee population. Therefore any impact we have on the health or genetics of bees in our hives has a further impact on the wider honeybee population.

Extensive rather than intensive beekeeping
Bees kept intensively (hence beyond their natural capabilities) need a high degree of manipulation and medication in an attempt to keep disease free. Extensive beekeeping on the other hand allows bees to live with a low level of many pathogens, strengthening their ability to survive long term. The danger of over-medication has been demonstrated only too clearly in our own population with the advent of antibiotic resistant diseases.


Many beekeepers select for docility and artificially breed queens accordingly. However, recent research has shown that more defensive bees are likely to produce a greater amount of honey. This has certainly been the case with our bees!

There is also a problem with global ‘Melliferisation’, which in effect creates a monoculture – and is therefore vulnerable to new disease. Eloise will talk about this more later on.

Pathogen transmission

Pathogens need their host to survive. Allowing the swarm to leave the hive selects for a pathogen with low virulence, one the bees can survive with. Prevention of swarming interferes with natural selection and selects for a more virulent pathogen strain, increasing the long term risk of colony death.

Hive opening
Within a wild colonies’ nest the bees build cul-de-sacs, areas of warm humid air. We don’t yet fully know the effect of opening the hive, but it may impact not only on temperature but also on hive ‘scent’ and possibly on an antisceptic atmosphere. No-one at the conference advocated unmonitored bees, but there were those who would rarely, if ever, open the brood nest, those that would open if something seemed wrong and those that would open every week. My own feelings at present are to monitor in as many non-invasive ways as possible and to open only when I feel I need to.

Propolis (pro polis or ‘defender of the city’) really is fascinating. Bees have no internal immune system so they use propolis, gathered from resins which are in turn the immune system of plants. Propolis has anti-viral, anti-fungal, anti-tumoral and anti-inflammatory properties. Bees use it throughout the hive to reinforce wax, they polish the inside of all cells with it, cap all cells with it and use it to ‘disinfect’ the entrance (like an antisceptic footbath). Should a mouse or something too big for the bees to remove get stung to death inside the hive they will embalm it using propolis.

Most fascinating for me though was the research showing how the chemistry of propolis collected from around the world varies enormously. Not only in response to climate (the most ‘potent’ propolis comes from warm and wet climates) but also in response to prevalent illness. For example in Cameroon it contains compounds effective against sleeping sickness, also in those areas affected by it in Tanzania – but not in those that aren’t- and in the Solomon Islands it contains compounds effective against MRSA.

And on top of all that it smells so good!

Different hive types were on show – all using top bars or frames to house natural comb:

Eloise: my account of the weekend:

We came together for an inspiring few days in beautiful natural surroundings because of our common interest in the plight of bees. There was a range of workshops available in colourful yurts and with our bums firmly planted on cosy straw bales we were ready to take in lots of very interesting information!

Bees for Development, Bees abroad and Wild Bees are the three talks I attended.

Bees for Development:

A name you might be familiar with, their aims are poverty alleviation and biodiversity maintenance.

The biggest problem with beekeeping at present is the desire to homogenise – the global Melliferisation (love that word!) of beekeeping. Apis Mellifera Mellifera, a native of Europe is being exported worldwide because it produces large amounts of honey and is fairly ‘docile’. This is further compounded by bad beekeeping practices. Interestingly there are no indigenous honeybees in the USA.

Extensive beekeeping versus intensive beekeeping, intensive is regarded as modern, extensive is regarded as traditional. Poorer countries practice low cost, effective and much more sustainable beekeeping. Using intensive management techniques we have changed our practices from a “population level” activity to a “box level” activity.

An example from Tanzania: Somebody owns 120 hives, but only 1/3rd are occupied at any time, with only 3-4 hives per apiary. This practice is better for the bees and more cost effective for the beekeeper.

What can we do:
-The essential focus must be on the welfare of the bees, not just the colony but the whole bee population.
-Create a good environment for bees and so encourage good genetics and husbandry

Tom Seeley (an American biologist who has done extensive research into the phenomenon of swarm intelligence) said ”fitness of the bee would be better if we concentrated on reproduction rather than honey production”.

I had no knowledge of the extent of the global Melliferisation of bees before the conference, so this was a real eye opener and provoked thoughts of global campaigning. Just as a beekeeper should consider the whole bee population and not just his own hives. As a member of a group who’s concern is for the plight of bees it is necessary to do some awareness raising of these global practices.

A little anecdote but with big implications I picked up on in this talk: There is no residue free (or organic) honey or bees wax produced in the EU, this is because traces of veterinary products, antibiotics and other chemicals are found in them. Cameroon has organic beeswax which it sells to cosmetics companies.

The next talk I went to was another organisation working outside the EU but on a smaller scale: Bees Abroad.

Their aim is to connect beekeepers from different countries, working on a one to one basis. The beekeeper makes an assessment and builds appropriate hives from local resources (people and materials) with the idea of minimising inputs and prioritising bee health before honey production and pollination services. Their focus is on disease prevention, no importation, natural breeding and working with the bees’ natural swarm impulse.

As they so rightly put it: “Beekeeping as though bees matter”.

The global Melliferisation of bees is a disaster in so many ways. Bees are adapted to different climates, temperate or tropical, and taking them out of their natural habitat and flying them 1000’s of miles away is evidently going to put them at risk of new diseases and increase the likelihood of medication. Native bee populations are also at risk of extinction from imported diseases, thereby impacting upon crucially important species diversity.

The last talk I attended was by Brigit Strawbridge entitled Wild Bees. I really loved this talk because it opened my mind to a whole new fascinating world.

She stressed how there was so much about the decline of the honeybee in the press and so little about other bees!!Wild bees are incredibly important pollinators (one red mason bee can equal 120 honeybees in an orchard).

There are 20000 different species of bee worldwide. With 24 different species of bumblebee alone. Specialist foragers such as the red bum bumblebee (bombus lapidaris) and the tree bee from northern Europe (foxy head, black abdomen and white tail, loves blue tit boxes!) are in decline. There are 200 species of solitary bees, they are very messy bees with some lovely names! Such as the hairy footed flower bee, around in early spring (likes lungwort and comfrey).

A little story about the bumblee and its cuckoo (Each of the ‘big six’ bumblebees has a dedicated cuckoo bee):
Bumblees like to go underground or in places like compost heaps to hibernate. When they come out of hibernation they forage for nectar, make a nest and lay 8-16 eggs. The bumblee will then brood those eggs just like a chicken! She will keep going back and forth to get food. The egg is put in a wax ball surrounded by pollen, near her is a little “honey pot” full of nectar to sustain her while she’s breeding.

28 days later the bumblee emerges as a wet bee with wet wings and feeds from the honey pots. In the nest there are foragers, nurse maids and guard bees. A cuckoo bumblee wishes to take over the nest, usually (but not always) killing the queen. To do this the cuckoo will “hang around” the hive observing and picking up the scent of the hive so that eventually it will be able to enter without being attacked and once inside will kill the Queen and take over the nest!
The Queen keeps reproducing, worker broods survive 4-6 weeks. At some point in the summer the Queen stops producing a certain chemical and starts to lay daughter queens.

The male bumblees get rejected and have to find shelter elsewhere (so if you see a bumblee looking a bit lost and dozy at the end of summer you’ll know he’s just been kicked out!).

The daughter queens go into hibernation and the old queen dies. Voila!

Another curious story is that of buzz pollination within the nightshade family:
Tomatoes hold on to their pollen really strongly, the bumblee has to buzz very fast in front of the flower until at last it gives up its pollen!!

Having delved into this magical world, it was a great shock to then find that just like honeybees, bumble bees are now bred in boxes and shipped all around the world. They are used for the pollenisation of huge polytunnels, but as they cannot be allowed to become part of the native population they are exterminated once their work is done.

What can be done:
-Ask local councils to change bedding/verge plants to bee friendly plants, get public support in doing this
-campaign for the ban of neo-nicotinoid pesticides (impairs insects ability to function, decreases immune system), ask local garden centres and golf courses whether they sell products that contain imedaclopred (vine weevil and soil treatment), explain the dangers of this product to insects.
-Lobby government
-Get a giant magnifying glass and explore your garden in the spring and summer, delve into that magical world and make our gardens a really safe haven for bees!

Brigit Strawbridge has posted many interesting films of discoveries she has made in her garden on you tube with the name pixie bagginsa.

Brigit Stawbridge:”You cannot cause harm to that which you know and love”.

As is probably evident we had very different experiences, even the talks we went to together meant different things to each of us. However, we both came away from the experience with our thoughts challenged and with a different relationship with ‘our’ bees.

The Natural Beekeeping Conference 2012 is being held at Emerson College, West Sussex on 10th-12th August. You can register your interest here.