This article is written by bee enthusiast, Philip Chandler. Philip has been beekeeping with the top bar hive for several years and has worked at the renowned Buckfast Abbey in the UK.
"Without husbandry, "soil science" too easily ignores the community of creatures that live in and from, that make and are made by, the soil. Similarly, "animal science" without husbandry forgets, almost as a requirement, the sympathy by which we recognize ourselves as fellow creatures of the animals." Wendell Berry
From the perspective of the early 21st century, one can look back over the last 150 years and see how commercial beekeeping developed from the Victorian desire to dominate the natural world and subjugate its inhabitants to the will of man. This was the dominant paradigm throughout the first two thirds of the twentieth century, until we began to wake up to what was happening to the planet as a result of our arrogant assumption that we could treat it as a bottomless waste pit. Some of us looked out at decimated forests, depleted soil and polluted water and realised that we had collectively to change our ways.
The subsequent and currently rapid growth of the organic food movement indicates the beginnings of a shift in public perception, while the global dominance of a handful of agri-chemical corporations, intent on covering the earth with their genetically mutated organisms and chemical-dependent crops, represents the old order, stubbornly clinging to outmoded, reductionist science as their gospel and taking their moral guidance and business model from drug pushers.
The big lesson of the last century was that the way we treat the natural world has repercussions beyond the immediately obvious. Our destruction of rainforests and other habitats in the name of 'progress' have instigated irrevocable, cumulative cycles of species loss, soil erosion and climate change that we are only beginning to understand and that will haunt us for generations.
So it is with the bees. For a century and a half, we have assumed that we know better than they do what living conditions they require, what size cells they prefer to build, how many colonies can live in close proximity - and every other detail of their lives down to the mating of their queens, we have sought to bring under our control. And now we are reaping the rewards of our arrogance: bees that are dependant for their survival on chemical inputs and human interventions.
Can this situation be reversed? Nobody can say for sure, but those who are experimenting with sustainable beekeeping systems believe that the answer lies in a low-tech approach, that allows bees to build comb according to their own design, eliminating the artificial constraints imposed on them by the use of frames and wax foundation.
Foundation was introduced as a way of 'helping' the bees - saving them some work and therefore redirecting their energy towards doing more work for us, i.e. making more honey. Because it is milled to what has been decreed is the 'correct' cell size for worker bees, then that is what the bees are more-or-less forced to build. Because the generally adopted cell size of worker foundation is 0.3-0.5mm larger than those that feral bees build un-aided, this has led to an overall increase in the size of the bees themselves, due to the fact that they grow to the capacity of the cells in which they pupate.
Larger bees were thought to be a good thing, as they would surely have longer probosces - enabling them to feed on formerly unreachable nectars - and a larger payload capacity for nectar and pollen. Unfortunately, enlargement appears also to have resulted in reduced flying efficiency, shorter lifespan and quite possibly an increased susceptibility to disease and parasites.
Proponents of 'small-cell' foundation claim that a significant decrease in varroa population results from its use, due - it is suggested - to there being less space in the cells for them to reproduce, combined with a roughly one-day reduction in the worker bee emergence date compared with 'large-cell' bees. But this is still a step short of full 'naturalization'. The fact is that, given the choice, bees do not build uniform worker cells, but vary the size according to factors we can only guess at. Foundation or artificial comb - of whatever size - is part of the old control-freak, we-know-best paradigm that has caused their current problems. Having seen the beautifully formed, naturally constructed comb that bees build in skeps and in my top bar hives, I would not go back to frames and foundation if Thornes were giving them away.
It seems to me that bees need to build comb. It is a part of their natural lifecycle and a part of their biochemical makeup to extrude wax and to work it, and they need the freedom to build it their way. If that means they raise 15% of their colony as drones, then so be it: that is what they need to do and we may never know the reason why, nor do we nned to. Our pre-occupation with drone culling cannot but affect the quality of queens, as many of the most important traits are passed down the drone line, according to the late Brother Adam and others. It would not surprise me if the many stories of poor quality queens I have heard and read about recently were caused by a local shortage of good drones.
I am now looking at beekeeping as more of a conservation and restoration project than a profitable hobby. Much as I love honey, I am more interested in breeding bees that can look after themselves. I don't know to what extent I will succeed, but I hope that others will take up the challenge and that, by sharing information, we can find a way to develop a balanced system of beekeeping that is genuinely sustainable. Then the bees will have a chance to re-establish feral colonies, which will form the all-important genetic pool for future generations.
My own experiments with natural comb on top bars are still at an early stage, but having seen the enthusiasm with which a swarm set about constructing its home from scratch and experienced the simplicity of operation of this low-tech style of hive, I would like to invite all beekeepers to build and try one next season alongside their normal boxes. A TBH is easy to build – there are plenty of web sites showing plans – and I guarantee it will enrich your beekeeping experience.
The quotation from Wendell Berry is taken from 'Renewing Husbandry', Orion magazine Sept/Oct 2005
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