Conventional beekeeping has developed over the last 160 years. Most of the practices and equipment involved was developed in the Victorian era when the thinking was that mankind had total dominion over the animal kingdom and could improve on nature by using science and technology. There was also the view that bees were a resource for us to 'farm'. As a consequence all the developments in conventional beekeeping have been made to either make things easier for the beekeeper or to maximise honey production. The needs of the bees themselves were not considered.
At first there was no apparent problem; the bees seemed to produce an apparently limitless abundance of free honey. Over time, however, the issues started to show and over time the various stresses on the bees began to compound until we reached the situation today where bees are in trouble.
Today conventional beekeepers tend to use the National hive (click on this excellent animation to see the parts of a National) - a development from the original box invented by the Rev. Lorenzo Langstroth in 1851, though some use slight variants such as the WBC or commercial hive.
Sustainable beekeepers recognise the following issues in these hives and their management practices:
- Use of frames - Frames are used inside the hive to ease inspection, removal and reorganisation by the beekeeper. However these frames make the hives draughty for the bees as they prevent the bees building comb up to the sides. Indeed, when the bees attempt to join the frame to the hive side conventional beekeepers call it 'brace comb' and remove it.
- Use of foundation - Inside the frames they place a manufactured comb template called 'foundation'. This is either made from beeswax or plastic and is used as an artificial building block to force bees to build comb to a standard size determined by man rather than in a variety of sizes they build in nature. The standard manufactured cell size used on foundation is larger than the natural cell size based on the premise that bigger bees will gather more honey. However, there is much evidence to support the argument that larger cells make things easier for the Varoa mite. In nature the bees vary the cell size depending on season and location in the hive.
- Culling of unwanted bees - Conventional beekeeping practices encourages the culling (that is slaughter) of male bee cells in a belief that they are of little use in bulk honey production. Whilst the male bee does not collect food or contribute to comb manufacture or brood rearing they clearly have a role to play, maybe in keeping the hive warm and balanced. After all it is the bees that actively decide when to raise male bees and how many. This culling practice also extends to what the beekeeper considers to be ‘less productive’ queens. They will often kill a viable queen and replace with an artificially raised one just to increase honey output.
- Large capacity hives - the National and variant hives are all based on what was available to the inventor at the time rather than on the size chosen naturally by wild bee colonies. Bees strive to maintain their colony at a constant temperature which is far more difficult to achieve in a large box. There is much evidence to suggest that the bees nest heat and scent is critical to bee health - for more info' download Johann Thür's 'law of retention of nest scent and heat' paper (374 KB).
- Treatment regimes - the practice of adding chemicals, gasses and antibiotics to ‘treat’ for possible ailments. Whilst a sustainable beekeepers also treat sick bees they will tend to favour natural methods (eg sugar dusting for Varoa) or use chemicals when required rather than routinely.
- Supering - the practice of adding honey collecting boxes above the colony forcing the bees to build comb upwards which is unnatural to them. In Warre hives the boxes are added below the bees which allows them to progress naturally downwards. Not only is supering unnatural but it means placing a drafty empty box above the brood thus screwing their natural air conditioning system - see Thür's paper above.
- Use of a queen excluder – a man-made screen designed to keep the queen in the part of the hive where the beekeeper wants her. Designed to keep the queen from laying eggs in the beekeepers honey store it disrupts her freedom of movement.
- Swarm suppression - wing clipping of queens and other invasive methods to prevent colonies from swarming – natures way of hive reproduction. A conventional beekeeper does all s/he can to hang onto their bees as they don't want to loose their workforce. Ina way this is understandable given they have spent so much on their expensive hive and its running costs - they are looking for a return on that investment.
- Importing and moving bees around - this practice has been done for many years in an attempt to try and get a more ‘efficient’ stock by bringing in foreign, un-acclimatised stock along with their disease and parasites and consequently diluting the local natural gene pool. Our native British Black bee has been more or less wiped out by the importation of forcing stock. It is also this practice of importing bees that has spread bee disease around the globe and is responsible for why we have the dreaded Varoa mite today.
- Artificial feeding - the practice of removing too much of the honey produced by the bees which they need for over-wintering and replacing it with unnatural alternatives. Bees make honey for themselves, not mankind, to see them through the winter. We are lucky in that in most years they produce more than they are likely to need. However, Sustainable Beekeepers err very much on the side of caution - we are in this for the bee, not our own honey production quotas!