Is it natural?

Honey jars from Mumbleys Farm, Jules' smallholding

Honey jars from Mumbleys Farm, Jules' smallholding - Credit: Archant

Jules Moore considers the argumemnts for and against ‘natural’ beekeeping

Inspecting a frame

Inspecting a frame - Credit: Archant

If you are concerned for the environment, you will probably be aware that there is a problem with the survival of bees worldwide. I don’t know all the answers, but I regularly see evidence in my apiary that things are not right with my bees.

You may also have heard about ‘natural’ beekeeping which advocates a more bee-centred approach and implies that conventional beekeepers are somehow damaging bees. There is a lot of variation in the way bees are kept and a lot of what I have read is written in very simplistic language. There is so much more to it than that or bees wouldn’t be in the mess they are in. It is very difficult to say that one approach is good and the other bad. I have a great deal of concern for the welfare of my bees, but I also take honey from them. I follow organic principles and it is not in my interest to over-work them or treat them badly.

The best approach to ‘keeping’ bees

Inset: The golden nectar...

Inset: The golden nectar... - Credit: Archant

The main tenet of the ‘natural’ beekeeping movement is leaving the bees to live in their hives undisturbed and following their natural instincts. Conventional beekeepers regularly check their bees for pests and diseases and to assess the health of the colony. We also do this to ‘manage’ swarming. Without this the bees may leave the hive and cause a nuisance to the general public. I am a BBKA Swarm Collector. This year I have collected bees from a pipe full of liquid tar, the doorway of a shop, a compost bin, a fence post and many gardens.

To prevent swarming, I clip my queen’s wings. This does not appear to affect the queen, but is obviously not very ‘natural’. It does allow me to control swarming. In contrast to the claims of the ‘natural’ beekeeping movement, there are very few feral colonies of bees. If a swarm isn’t picked up by another beekeeper, chances are they will die within the year because they carry a parasitic mite, Varroa destructor, which was imported into this country and which they are currently unable to control unaided (although there is evidence that this is changing). If my bees are trying to swarm, I artificially split them up and this also helps control Varroa.

I check my hives for poor disease resistance or aggressiveness. I will not treat the former or tolerate the latter; the queen is culled and the bees combined with another, better colony. My bees are only treated once a year with an organic thyme oil compound for Varroa.

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I take honey from my bees when it is freshly made. I like raw honey and honey left until the following spring (as per the ‘natural’ beekeeping movement) will probably have granulated and need warming to remove - not good for the quality or health properties of the honey. I never take honey unless I feel that the bees have produced excessive quantities. I top them up in the autumn with an invert sugar solution and over-winter them with access to fondant, neither of which are as good as real honey, but they still have plenty of real honey. This is about as ethical as it gets if you want some honey as well!

I believe that what I am doing is preserving honey bees until such time as they learn to cope with Varroa and until non-beekeepers have a greater concern for their welfare. I do not believe they can make it alone. If you don’t want to keep bees, but want to support them, plant bee-friendly flowers and support a beekeeping research charity like Adopt-A-Beehive. (