We gathered at the Marsh Harrier pub in Oxford on a Sunday afternoon to discuss beekeeping with some interested “newbees” who were seriously considering keeping bees themselves.
It’s remarkable how bees spark discussion: just carrying in a tiny hive (made for transporting swarms), a bartender spotted it and reminisced how his grandfather in Albania kept bees in the wall of his house, where they could fly out a hole in the wall, but you could open a cupboard door and observe the nest from inside the house. His first question after “are you a beekeeper?” was “do you use chemicals”. (No.)
Although Oxfordshire’s Beekeeping Association is welcoming and curious towards natural beekeeping, the taught courses are defined by the BBKA and are purely “conventional” and this was why the newbees had contacted ONBG instead to enquire about our style of low-intervention beekeeping. We suggested the beginners attend one of Gareth John’s natural beekeeping courses.
A common theme among the newbees’ concerns was how they were taken aback by what they saw as the casual cruelty taught on the BBKA conventional beekeeping courses, such as clipping queens’ wings (and practising on drones); or the irrationality of choosing which queen cells to squash when you do need a new queen but want to avoid multiple queens which leads to swarming: how can a human tell which will be the ‘best’ queen? Or the recommendations to avoid swarming – the natural way bees reproduce their superorganism, which has evolved to give the bees a brood break and to start new colonies essentially free of pests.
The beginners were generally well read and thoughtful and very sceptical of the need for routine medication for e.g.varroa mites: “that’s how we created antibiotic resistance”, “the packet said not to use it above a certain temperature or it would kill ‘too many’ bees!” Linda pointed out her 5 untreated hives have never had a varroa problem over ~8 years.
Linda’s comment prompted one of us to reminisce about a 15 minute venomous tirade she had to endure in Slough, where she was lectured on the evils of untreated hives spreading diseases to other hives. Another of us had a similar experience with a bee inspector at his hives, but he had the chutzpah to address the inspector calmly and address each of his concerns knowledgeably until the inspector became intrigued rather than hostile.
The issues here are that rather than use inbred stock from queen rearers, we breed from “survivor” colonies such as ferals, and our tough bees have evolved hygienic traits such as grooming mites off so have very low mite loads; we don’t use miticides because we don’t need to. We’re sometimes challenged about inspectability, by ‘experienced’ beekeepers who assume natural beekeepers don’t inspect their hives – in fact, we do perform thorough internal inspections, looking at individual Warré and TBH combs; we just don’t need to very often, because we’re not trying to suppress swarming and we watch behaviour through windows, at the entrance etc very closely.
Our group’s approach is comparable to member Dr Eric’s comment that humans are not just a bag of cells, we are a mutuality with the bacteria inside us; and routine medication such as pouring antibiotics into us has side effects and is not a good default option.
We answered questions on various subjects including bee races, hive types, skeps, frames and bars, bees at schools, stings and allergies, swarm lures… There were just eight of us most of the time allowing very personal responses. One beginner observed insightfully that everyone comes up with their own style of beekeeping, blending ideas that work for them and their bees.
One interesting question was “can I keep bees on a narrowboat, which is sometimes moved?” The answer was “not advisable” – firstly and fundamentally, the strong vibration from the engine when either charging the batteries or moving will make the bees very alarmed and defensive. Secondly, bees memorise the location of their hive and return precisely to that spot after a foraging trip. If the hive (boat) has moved they will be left behind and die. Thirdly, we reckoned there could be problems going under low bridges.
Another very interesting point came up about keeping bees near Hook Norton. Normally, we recommend you use local mongrel bees to avoid problems with aggression which can occur when two strains of bee cross-mate. But ‘Hooky’ is where Viktor and Lucy of Honeybee Suppliers are based and they raise thousands of Buckfast queens a year: they are commercial queen and nucleus suppliers. This means that it is likely that their genetics swamp the area and any bees you keep near there are going to end up crossed with Buckfasts. But if you use Buckfast bees, in our experience that breed has no hygienic traits and does not thrive in a treatment-free regime. There is no good answer here but we recommended they speak to Viktor to understand more about their options. Perhaps his operation is far enough from the enquirer’s exact location that this is not going to be a problem.
Jack had brought along a number of exhibits to illustrate points such as bars and frames, and after the pub discussion we went to see his TBH at his house where there were further wonders to behold. He has wired his hive for sound, and we listened to the bees from his kitchen.
He had samples of dead bees and varroa mites showing the massive size of these parasites relative to their host, pollen samples, and an extensive library of bee books from which he read some informative and amusing passages. One was a report written in 1765 of two swarms entering the same hive, as happened with his own hive – the author, William White, describes how he managed to separate the bees back into two colonies before the workers killed one queen by ‘balling’ her, i.e. covering her with hundreds of bees and cooking her with their heat / smothering her. This led to a discussion of queen fights and balling hornets (here’s a video of this).
The newbees asked which books we’d recommend. We suggested these key texts, available from Northern Bee Books:
- (For Warré users) Natural Beekeeping with the Warré hive, David Heaf
- (For TBH users) Top-Bar Beekeeping by Les Crowder, or Balanced Beekeeping II: Managing the Top Bar Hive by Philip Chandler
For a deeper understanding you could also read:
- The Biology of the Honey Bee by Winston
- The Buzz about Bees by Jurgen Tautz
- At the Hive Entrance by H. Storch
We all happily watched his bees gathering pollen and talked further in the garden until we got too chilled. The newbees left with many of their questions answered and feeling encouraged to inform themselves further through both reading and courses, and feeling reassured that they could start beekeeping with a support network of like minded people nearby.
Many thanks to Jack for organising the meeting and allowing us to trample round his house and garden.