At the end of August the world’s first major international gathering of natural beekeepers, Learning from the Bees, took place in the Netherlands. The atmosphere had a festival vibe and concentrated on healthy bees and improving the environment, rather than the commercial / honey emphasis of most major bee events. The subject that kept coming up was natural selection.
Presentations ranged from research scientists like Professor Tom Seeley (famous for his studies of wild forest bees in America) and Peter Neumann (molecular geneticist, President of COLOSS) to environmental activists like Terry Oxford (US pesticide campaigner), Deborah Post and Tom van de Beek (planting / education initiatives in Holland and Germany), and well known authors like Jacqueline Freeman. There were also artists and poets, reminding us of the impact of bees on human cultures.
Some hive types displayed at the event
30 countries represented, but sadly 12 Palestinian beekeepers were denied visas by the Dutch. I met Australians, Americans, many Europeans, a Russian, an Indian and some South Africans.
Being the first event of its kind, there were no pre-existing cliques and everyone talked to everyone. Great for networking.
One scientist got very emotional on stage, choked up and explained that since publishing an article critiquing conventional hive management he’d had lots of “robust criticism” from conventional beeks. Now he was looking out at almost 300 faces who believed passionately in his conclusions.
It was very clear that there were 3 main groups with very different circumstances represented:
North Americans: Massive problems for European honeybees due to the scale of migratory beekeeping, industrialised monoculture farms, higher pesticide use, inbred genetics etc. But as one delegate said, they are trying to prop up the wrong species – they already have a vigorous mite resistant bee which stores prodigious amounts of honey. “Problem? What problem?!”
Many Europeans: (Spanish, Dutch, German, others): forced to register hives and treat with miticides by law. Inspectors check these practises are performed; one delegate described themselves as a “semi natural beekeeper”. These delegates felt very isolated and were generally surrounded by hard core conventional beekeepers deeply suspicious of non-standard methods. At least they have a wide genetic diversity.
Brits, Belgians: Not forced to treat with miticides, and in Britain at least we are not required to register our hives. Adriaan van Sandwijk from Eastern Belgium told me how a university project to study varroa in his area had been shelved because they could not find any mites in local hives! These countries have steadily increasing mite resistance, although it is not acknowledged by the official beekeeping organisations.
I met too few beekeepers from elsewhere to really form an impression of the Asian / South American etc issues. The Australians seemed to be doing well (no varroa there) and said Small Hive Beetle is only an issue in their tropical areas. A Russian beekeeper had a relaxed attitude about threats to bees – Russian bees are already varroa tolerant and they have plenty of wilderness to thrive in!
Several attendees mentioned they were very moved by finally meeting like minded people, as back home they were surrounded by many hostile, critical conventional beekeepers.
Whereas conventional beekeeping get-togethers are all about honey and buying equipment, there wasn’t really anyone here trying to sell stuff to you. There was the odd book for sale and people were demo’ing hive types you could buy from them, but there wasn’t that high pressure sales vibe you get at some conferences.
Though there were users of everything from log hives to framed things, no one preached or criticised others.
Scope of the lectures
The conference wasn’t just about Western honeybees (Apis mellifera) but had a broader focus, with participation from conservationists and activists and even artists and poets inspired by bees. I was dubious about some of these at first but in fact this inclusive atmosphere worked really well; attending some of the less scientific events I was struck by how group bonding they were. Looking back, I found myself reflecting more on the emotional insights from people who talked of their bonds with bees, than on the scientific lectures which covered ground I was largely familiar with. You could say I began thinking more about why I keep bees around me, than how.
Presentations covered the science of natural selection and mite resistance (with big name speakers like Professor Tom Seeley, and Dr Neumann); environmental activism (watch for the name Terry Oxford in future); pollinator / planting / education initiatives in Holland and Germany; art installations on the themes of bees and hives; interactive sessions like Jacqueline Freeman’s wordless “Being a Bee” which was a really relaxing way of starting the day; some more philosophical / reflective sessions, and many others – so many they had to have some in parallel. I can’t describe them all to the degree they deserve, but the programme is here – www.learningfromthebees.org
Here’s a typical extract from my notes for just one talk:
Peter Neumann, president of COLOSS had a number of interesting points. Colonies are well adapted and buffered, so the death of one indicates a significant problem. The biggest problem for bees is beekeeping practises, such as the use of poorly adapted foreign bees, inbreeding, suppressing swarming, eliminating propolis. Did you know if you leave used frames near an apiary after harvesting honey, the bees initially remove the remaining honey – but eventually they mine the propolis? It’s really valuable to them! Let the bees choose their queens because recent DNA sampling shows when they control this process, they choose queens whose fathers were from certain “royal families” (drone fathers), which isn’t something we can choose for them.
This really just scratches the surface of what went on, but some key points to me were that it helped me “bed in” and integrate knowledge I “sort of” knew piecemeal, and many people who had felt like isolated practitioners felt they were finally part of a community who approved of what they are doing.
An example of the curious disconnect between scientists and hands-on practitioners: the search for varroa resistant bees
It is common knowledge among natural beekeepers that varroa resistance is widespread in bees, if they are not living in “forced productivity” conditions.
But this was news to the academic researchers at the conference! Scientist groups like COLOSS have been very focused on a few gene lines and were surprised to find lots of natural beekeepers at this conference saying “my bees have no varroa”! Perhaps they have given too much weight to the self professed authority figures of national beekeeping organisations, who have invested decades promoting high-intervention regimes.
Aurigo Moro, one of Peter Neumann’s PhD students is trying to create a map of Apis mellifera varroa-survivor populations. Aurigo whipped together a simple survey with about 6 questions and asks anyone who knows of a population of 5 or more colonies which have survived long term without treatment, to fill it in. I urge you to complete the survey if you know of 5 such colonies to help puncture the paradigm that varroa resistance is rare and feral bees die quickly from varroa.
This is important because we can’t depend on one super inbred Frankenbee to be suitable for all locations. Just within Britain, bees have a 2 month summer brood break in the north and often none in the south. This requires locally adapted strains.
This isn’t so relevant to a beekeeping blog, but in brief, the speakers covered a number of issues:
- Just as we saw in the European neonic debate, financial stakeholders are cynically using distraction tactics to sow doubt in the USA and prevent their barring there. I got the impression the USA is the key pesticide battleground. Terry Oxford was an impressive speaker.
- Until recently, you couldn’t get crop insurance in America unless you used pesticides.
- On legal issues: “Let’s say Acme Chemicals loses a civil case about Agent Green. It doesn’t stop them continuing to manufacture it.” Chemicals such as glyphosphate and 2,4-D (used in Agent Orange) are outlawed for use in war, but not peacetime!
- “The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed & apathy” – Torben Schiffer
There were several videos. Ever noticed how films about bees are mostly silent? This reflects the Zen like state most of us experience when observing (rather than manipulating) bees. A few exceptionally calm and centred delegates / speakers such as Gareth and Jacqueline described a shamanic relationship with their bees, pointing out that bees don’t have transactional interactions with you but “give unconditionally”, having less sense of self than us.
The conference was all about balance. On returning home I saw the following showing me how far conventional beekeeping pushes things out of balance, and the extremes it has to go to to correct this:
- My hive floors are all sealed, like a feral tree colony’s. They use about one quarter to one third of the winter stores the BBKA reckons you need because the hives have a low internal volume and good insulation. But an email from my local association urged me to ventilate my hives, if only for a few weeks to allow the fumes to dissipate from the oxalic acid I ought to be using to kill varroa(!). Another communication stressed the need to ventilate to avoid condensation… on cold walls and from the moisture created burning excessive sugar stores to keep warm in a hive with an open mesh floor! Bees can cope with both situations, but why stress them?
- I received a promotional email reminding beekeepers they can convert and exchange wax. Yes, although hospitals no longer re-use syringes, people still do this in 2018. What a great way to spread miticide residues and AFB spores. It’s difficult to understand why such an obviously risky process is still encouraged.
- I logged into an otherwise useful beekeeping forum which is full of trolls spreading lies about local bees. It struck me that the conventional beeks have been getting more aggressive on such forums, and this is presumably because they feel more threatened – indicating that Common Sense Beekeeping is becoming more popular.
- The most aggressive trolls on the forum tend to be breeders of one race or another, promoting requeening with non-local strains every year in the name of honey yield.
- And then it struck me that of all the people I know who have simply put a random swarm in a hive and left it alone, only about 5% ever lost a colony to varroa. This says a lot about how far out of balance conventional “experts” have strayed.
After arriving home I discovered that BIBBA , a bee conservation and improvement organisation in the British Isles, have independently converged on uncannily similar conclusions as natural beekeepers (apart from favouring framed hives and being quite keen on harvesting honey): local bees / non treatment / use natural selection to get varroa resistance. Like us, they are keen on undoing the dependence on human intervention fostered by conventional breeders.
My impression, which may be biased because most of my contacts are in the UK, was that experimental beekeeping is much more advanced and accepted in Europe than the USA. (Just compare an issue of the American Bee Journal and its British equivalent the BBKA News – the former generally has articles ranting against treatment free beekeeping whereas the latter, whilst full of advice and adverts promoting chemical varroa treatments, often has an article or letter on alternative hive types, natural beekeeping etc.) My guess is that the British Isles, France and Belgium will lead the way in reinventing beekeeping, as they have relaxed apiculture regulations, allowing experimentation, and a wealth of local gene lines; and the American natural beeks are too far apart geographically to network as effectively. The BBKA News’ willingness to feature controversial articles on e.g. hive insulation or non-treatment, means the UK’s beekeeping community is keenly aware of alternative techniques and many beekeepers are experimenting with a fraction of their hives.
Further reading: other reviews of the conference
Issue 9 of Natural Bee Husbandry has several articles on the conference
And, I’ll be doing another article on specific things I learned about bees at the conference.