Natural beekeeping at OBKA

OBKA, the Oxfordshire BeeKeepers’ Association, periodically hold Question and Answer meetings, and on the 17th August this was at my local pub; they’d asked me to represent the natural beekeeping viewpoint on the panel. So following the ONBG meeting on the same day, we trooped over to the pub to learn from the conventional beeks.

We heard an interesting bit of news. Bees are to be reclassified from wild animals to domestic animals in 2017. It is unclear what exactly this means yet (can we all get EU farming grants?) but one likely effect is compulsory registration of beekeepers.

I think everyone was rather hoping sparks would fly between the conventional and natural beekeeping factions,  but, as usual, the OBKA membership were very thoughtful and did not seem hostile at all (perhaps because we’d stuffed the audience with ONBG members!). The chairman did mischievously throw in a question at the end to try and get some controversy going, I responded on the benefits of low intervention beekeeping and mentioned, among other things, the potential development of varroa resistant / tolerant bees through natural selection. This did provoke a restrained reaction from Ged Marshall, an experienced co-panelist and queen rearer who runs 450 hives and whose livelihood depends on responsible behaviour by other beekeepers. He made the very valid point that there is a public duty not to breed pests where they can be transmitted to other hives.

At this point his view and mine diverge. This may not have come out in the meeting, but we discussed it further afterwards. In his view these live-and-let-die practices don’t work, and result in many colonies collapsing, whereupon their remaining bees flee to nearby colonies – and nearby colonies also rob out the infected collapsed hives, then carry back a payload of varroa. I can see his point with regards to infectious diseases, but not so much with varroa. I described Gareth’s experience developing varroa-resistant bees in Warres. “Ah, but take them out of the Warres and the resistance doesn’t last” he said. “Couple of years maybe.” In retrospect (you never think of these things at the time!) I think the answer to that is, “so why do bees managed your way – in thin walled hives with poor thermal control, raised on foundation etc – lose the resistance they acquired? Doesn’t this say something about how beekeeping is done these days?”

He also pointed out that things like pollen collection, and bee behaviour at the entrance do not necessarily mean you have a laying queen / healthy colony, etc. These things are indicators but cannot be as certain as inspecting the actual nest area.

I have to tip my hat to Ged. He is very willing to share his wealth of knowledge, and does not hector natural beekeepers, instead he prefers to educate and help us and believes that with experience, we will observe similar things and come to the same conclusions as he.

There was another panelist, Steven Loughborough. He is a cell geneticist(?) who runs about 40 hives as a hobby. One of the questions from the audience about drone genetic variability drew the following response from him… I hope I’ve remembered this right: one of the problems facing bee breeders who try to maintain pure strains, is that as you continually inbreed the stock, genetic errors – repeats – build up in the drones. Once these have built up to a critical threshold, the resulting eggs laid by a queen mated with this drone smell wrong, and trigger cannibalism by the workers, who eat the faulty egg. (Does this make anyone else think “queen failure”?) It’s thought this problem is compounded by the much lower number of colonies per square mile in Britain these days – perhaps one third of historical levels – so the queens meet fewer drones. Now I’d heard before that one of the problems with domestic animals and bees these days is the massive inbreeding and lack of genetic diversity, but hearing it again, explained a different way, brought home to me just how big a problem inbreeding is for beekeeping. Many beeks use queens from the same few breeders, because we want docile colonies for our gardens, proven resistance to disease, etc.

As the meeting broke up two couples came up to me and asked about natural beekeeping, which they’d heard of and were intrigued by. I took them back to my house, all of 5 minutes away, and after showing them the TBH’s in the garden, and describing how we smoke ourselves rather than the bees etc, I did a rapid summary of the ONBG meeting we’d just held there – varroa counting, honey harvesting, using the empty bait hive to demo techniques. I don’t know if they will take up natural beekeeping, but at least they now have some context to judge it on.

If anyone present remembers a different version of events, or things I have missed,or would like to add the perspective of an audience member, please add a comment below.

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2 Responses to Natural beekeeping at OBKA

  1. phillipdove says:

    Paul, I was one of those who came back to your house to look at the top bar hive. You said “I don’t know if they will take up natural bee keeping…”. Well I thought you’d like to know that I am half way through building our first top bar hive, I think that answers your question! Thanks for the invite to your house and sowing the seed of the top bar.


  2. Paul says:

    That’s great!

    There are all kinds of mods you can do for a TBH, but here are the two which are probably most important… and difficult to correct after the hive’s been built:

    – Aim for a wall thickness of at least an inch. Sure, bees can generate heat even with thin walls. But they don’t have to work as hard with thick walls so you can get by with less winter stores / there are fewer condensation problems on cold walls. And it may help in hot weather too. The downside is that the hive will be heavier and trickier to move.

    – Gino pointed out that my hives’ roofs don’t have much of a slope on them. If they have a sharper slope, there is a usefully large volume under them. This gives you options like being able to put a feeder (like a repurposed margarine tub) there without having to open the hive to plonk a feeder *inside*. Much less disruptive for the bees, thus less likely to get stung!


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