What is Natural Beekeeping?
You'll hear many terms used to describe the beekeeping we practice. Words such as as bee-friendly, sustainable, free range, alternative, top bar, holistic, apicentric, complimentary, the list goes on. All of these names are valid and could be applied to our methodology, we just happen to choose to use the labels 'bee-friendly' and 'natural'.
Whilst there are several definitions that attempt to describe what natural beekeeping is, probably the most important difference to note is that we practice a system designed to put the needs of the bee first and foremost. We strive to improve the bees welfare, to allow them to take control of their own affairs and we will only crop honey from our bees if we are convinced that it is surplus to their needs.
This an alternative approach to the established beekeeping practices which have been developed and honed over the last 150 years to meet the needs of the beekeeper and to maximise honey production. We see their 'conventional' methodology as a form of intensive honey farming.
Natural beekeeping involves a different management/husbandry methodology and usually the use of alternative hives1 which allow bees the freedom they need to manage their own affairs. That said it is possible to operate very naturally using 'conventional' hives. Natural beekeeping is about taking most of the 'human' control out of beekeeping and allowing the bees more charge of their own destiny. After all they have been around for millions of years and have overcome many natural disasters in their evolutionary journey without the 'help' of a comparatively recent mankind.
Whilst it is possible to keep bees totally naturally, not many do so. Most natural beekeeping is short of being 100% natural. As soon as you interfere with your bees in any way, such as introducing a caught swarm, feeding your bees or opening a hive for inspection, you deviate from being fully natural. What we are endeavouring to do, however, is to keep bees as near to natural as we can, trying to replicate what bees would find in a natural colony as near as is possible. Most natural beekeepers are on journeys towards being natural, choosing for themselves how far they want to go along that route. It's back to that desire to put the needs of the bees first that really marks the difference.
Natural beekeeping - a simple definition
Basically natural beekeeping is about providing a near-natural environment and allowing the bees to control their own colonies as they would in nature; interfering with them as little as possible. We encourage the use bee-friendly hives based on the size of home that evidence shows they would select in the wild, allowing them to build their own comb, letting them decide for themselves on the mix of workers to drones (male) bees and letting them swarm as and when they feel the need.
Above all, our interest is in the protection and preservation of the bee as a wild creature rather than seeing it as a producer of honey. Whilst we may sometimes harvest small amounts of honey, we will only do so having ensured they have sufficient stores for themselves. We do NOT view them as a resource for us to manipulate and exploit just for our own profit.
Natural beekeeping - a fuller definition
My favourite full definition is from the Bees For Development website - you will need to Register (free) to see the definition as well as loads of really useful bee information which is on their excellent Information Portal. I copy it in full:
"Environmental sustainability demands that ecosystems are not damaged beyond their capacity to maintain their own biological processes, functions, biodiversity and natural productivity.
Sustainable beekeeping must first consider the place of honey bees within an ecosystem and their impact on its ecological services. The relationship between bees and people has become central to this understanding. People have the potential to disturb irretrievably the balance between bees and their environment, as the advent of exotic Varroa mites in many countries of the world has demonstrated.
At the heart of sustainable beekeeping is the welfare of honey bees: not just at the level of the individual colony or apiary, but at the level of the whole bee population of the region. Beekeepers have often focused effort on their colony and apiary, ignoring their relationship with the wider bee populations of the locality or region. Meanwhile our social, economic and environmental activities and policies may be damaging the fundamental relationship between bees and the ecosystems on which they depend.
The aim of sustainable beekeeping should be the protection and maintenance of viable populations of indigenous bees. To do this we must first protect and maintain the bees' habitat, not just around the apiary, but in the wider region. Everyone, not just beekeepers, can participate in the broader activities of environmental protection. Principles of wildlife-friendly farming and gardening, protecting wild areas and native flora, and other activities carried out at individual, community and policy levels can all work to ensure that bees have sufficient nesting sites, forage and protection to survive and thrive.
Sustainable beekeeping also depends on the suitability of bees to their local environment. Beekeepers can contribute to the genetic fitness of bee populations by keeping only indigenous species and races of locally adapted bees. Historically, the importation of other species and races has led to a dilution of genetic fitness in wild bee populations as well as spreading disease.
Natural methods for the management of bees for sustainability will be determined by the ways the bees themselves want to live. Consequently, there may be some conflict between what the bees require and what the beekeeper requires. For example, the reproductive strategy of honey bees is to maximise their population by division, while humans may want to keep the colony whole to maximise their harvest. Methods of beekeeping should be appropriate to the local environment and local bees, and should always strive to maintain honey bee health. Beekeepers should have a positive effect on their bees and on the surrounding bee population. Thoughtless and uninformed beekeeping can have unintended negative consequences."
As good as this definition is, at the end of the day it is only words, albeit very worthy words. What will really mark out a good natural beekeeper is their actions, how much time they spend learning about bees, studying and interpreting their bees behaviour; learning to identify the sights, sounds, colours and behaviour of their bees. This was a skill that most beekeepers used to have but seems to have got lost in the 'bang the bees off the frame and inspect the comb' teachings of modern conventional beekeeping where the number of hives managed and quantity of production provides their measure of success.
As natural beekeepers I firmly believe we need to get back to old values and learn to cherish our bees.
1 Natural beekeeping hive types: Most commonly the various design of top bar hives - Émile Warré's 'People's Hive' and its variants, the horizontal (aka Kenyan, Tanzanian or log) hive, the Golden Hive (die einraumbeute) and the straw Skep. There are also other less common designs.