Towards natural beekeeping: It’s not about the honey

Anna Clayton met up with John Vendy and Sue Arnott, two beekeepers from Bentham, North Yorkshire, to learn more about their approach to natural beekeeping.

Anna: Can you introduce yourself and your story with natural beekeeping?

John: I have had an interest in bees since I was about 6 or 7 years old. A friend of the family was keeping bees and he gave me an introduction to bees and the wonderful world inside the box. It was 2009 when I got my first colony of bees. So for 11 years, I have been practising natural beekeeping. Its thoroughly enjoyable, always exciting and the bees will always teach you something new.

Sue: About 2009 my husband and I decided we might want to take up beekeeping and booked ourselves onto a weekend conventional beekeeping course in Shropshire. They were lovely people but carry practices that I just could not come to terms with: interfering so much with the bees; removing drone brood with a comb, and putting oxalic acid into the hive. Those sort of things just really jarred with me.

When we started we had a few false starts but learnt very quickly that the mistakes we made were caused by not observing what was going on and not feeding the bees at the right time. On our third attempt, we really got going and we have had bees ever since.

Why did you choose natural beekeeping methods?

John: When looking at conventional beekeeping it just didn’t fit in with what I expected to do to living creatures. The idea of putting on breathing apparatus and protective clothing to put a chemical onto another living creature, to me, is just wrong, and I just had to look for an alternative. As opposed to toxic chemicals, the worst I put on is icing sugar, which they will happily eat.

Sue: I have been vegetarian for donkey's years, I have worked for a conservation organization, I try to live my life as ethically and sustainably as I can. And so just the whole factory farming of bees, the commercialization of beekeeping and the interventions just didn't sit easy with me.

image: beehives arranged in clearing outside in north yorkshire

So on a day to day basis, compared to a conventional beekeeper, what are you doing?

John: Drinking wine and watching the entrance, as opposed to taking the roof off and rearranging all the furniture for them.

Conventional beekeepers are taught from late April through to the end of July, to open up the hive at least once a week to check for new queens. And if you find them destroy them or take appropriate action – it depends on who you talk to, what they recommend.

I like to open up the hive once a year and that is for a disease check particularly. I do have some hives where I don't take the roof off at all, but they all have another hive next to them where I can take the roof off. So if one is diseased, the odds are the other would be as well. So I should still pick up any major problems.

Sue:
My approach to natural beekeeping in a practical sense is just simply watching what is happening and providing support to the bees. Living where I do - on the edge of what is sustainable for bee populations because of the climate and the availability of forage- I feed them over the wintertime, which is an intervention, but I see it as a support for them rather than anything that will interfere with what they want to do. Which I am not sure really aligns fully with natural beekeeping.

John: If you are feeding sugar to keep a colony alive because you have had a bad summer, there is no big deal about that. If you are feeding them sugar because you have taken all the honey away, then you need to sit back and think again. You are taking away food that is their ideal, that they have made themselves and you are taking away a lot of the nutrition value by giving them sugar.

Anyone that thinks feeding bees sugar is just as good as letting them eat honey then try putting sugar syrup on your toast in the morning and see the difference – it's worlds apart.

Some practices within conventional beekeeping are said to cause stress for bees, could you talk more about this?

John: If you imagine bees in a hollow tree, they will settle in the hollow and they start building comb at the top and build down and down and down.

In a conventional hive, beekeepers will start them in a box and when they want to expand the hive, they will put an empty box on the top. There should never be anything above them, and so the bees immediately go up there and furiously start building comb and that becomes their main focus even to the point of not foraging as much as they could. They then start filling the empty comb with nectar to produce honey.

Part of the system there is they use a queen excluder between the two boxes so they contain the queen in the bottom box so there are no eggs laid where they want just honey. So they are confining the brood nest if you like. So both of those are a stress on the bees that they wouldn’t normally have.

Then you get to the end of the season when beekeepers take the honey away. The bees have spent the whole summer gathering nectar to produce honey to feed their future sisters through the winter and then all of a sudden it’s all taken away.

Sometimes it is not all taken away – a lot of beekeepers take some honey away and leave some for the bees to go through winter. But some take all the honey away and feed them with sugar water instead.

And then you get into opening the hive once a week to check queen cells to stop them from swarming. You alter the humidity of the nest, the nest scent – everything going on in their changes. Beekeepers get stung when they take the hive apart- nearly the only time. So that is obviously a stress to them – they are seeing an invasion into their homes. And then you have the treatments – acetic acids, oxalic acids, moving around for pollination,  queen clipping, drone brood removal etc.

How can natural beekeeping support healthier bee populations if at all?

John: If you look at varroa mite conventional beekeepers are killing off all the mites. The best treatments they have are 97% successful I think it is.

What natural beekeeping is trying to do is to support the bees while they learn to co-exist. The varroa mite naturally co-exists with the Asian honey bee- they have co-evolved- and they have strategies that they use to help them cope.

They swarm more often for instance and they move around more so they have more brood breaks where there is no brood produced. The varroa mite only breeds in the brood. So by having more brood breaks, they control the population.

By breeding from bees that survive naturally, you are also ‘selecting’ for all the traits that include better grooming techniques for the bees, a willingness to destroy larvae that are infected badly. So they are learning to naturally look after themselves. And my end game I think as a natural beekeeper is to not have to keep bees. Which probably sounds really stupid. But to know that bees can find hollows in trees or roof spaces or where ever, and build a nest and survive.

We have populations that are surviving in our town. There is a shop called Bentham Imaging. You could stand across the road, and look at the front of the shop. Across the top where it says ‘Bentham Imaging’ look at the left-hand side- there is a rusty old alarm bell on there – and on a warm day you can see bees flying in and out of there. They have been there for about five years.

If someone wanted to switch to more natural beekeeping, what advice would you give them?

Sue: The first thing I would say is, just forget about honey production. Because conventional beekeepers seem to be focused on this.

Honey is a bonus, not a reason for doing it. I treasure it so much because it is not a given- it happens maybe once every five years.

Start watching the bees, see what the bees do and respect what they do. Start observing the changes, the different types of pollen going in and out, the different movements of the bees, and not get too hung up with interfering with what they want to do.

If readers want to buy honey from a beekeeper who is taking a more bee-centric approach, how can they access this sort of honey?

John: The first thing is: don't buy it from a supermarket. If you look at honey you buy from a supermarket, generally, it will say produce ‘of EU and other countries’. 'Other countries' is generally China. Next to that, then find a local beekeeper. If buying from their doorstep ask them questions about how they keep bees. Talk to the beekeeper.

Sue: There is currently no labelling that will help you in regard to information about how honey is produced. Other than being able to ask the beekeeper, I guess working on the basis that small is often more beautiful is a useful approach - the scale of the operation is probably going to be more conducive to more respectful beekeeping, but not necessarily.

I think people need to value honey much more than they do. Because when its a fairly cheap commercial commodity that you can buy in a supermarket, it's just supporting those large commercial operations in China, or America or wherever - it devalues the product itself.

image: wooden beehive with bees inside with pink flowers in the left foreground

When you think about how many flights a bee needs to do to produce a teaspoon of honey – its thousands- when you think of it in those terms, you appreciate how much effort goes into it.

Our style of beekeeping isn’t about honey production so there is no easy answer to that.

If we were to celebrate Bentham’s community of beekeepers in 10 years time, what would we be celebrating?

John: More bees living in the wild. I would like to see councils and landowners not get so hung up on hollow trees. There was a beautiful ash tree outside of Ingleton. Nobody knew bees lived there until a branch fell off and exposed combs about 8 feet long in this tree.

Sue: If looking at things from the view of honey (rather than conservation) it would be a success to have more small scale bee keepers who support one or two colonies in their back yard, who take the honey as and when it is there without pinching it from the bees themselves.

More about natural beekeeping:

At The Hive Entrance - describes what you see outside the hive and suggests what is happening inside the hive from the observations outside. It is available to download as a free PDF.

The Bio Bees forum was started by Phil Chandler. There are no end of Facebook groups about Natural Beekeeping and the Natural Beekeeping Trust based in South East England somewhere also provides good information.

Free Issue

Sign up now to our email newsletter for a free digital copy of Ethical Consumer magazine.

Sign up now for our email newsletter