Beekeeping: Rethinking an age-old practice

My eyes tend to be much larger than the relatively non-existent time frame I have to work with when it comes to reading. The only allotted smidge of time for one of my dearest hobbies falls somewhere between the last load of laundry being folded, the dishes washed, me stumbling down the hallway half-catatonic and my head hitting the pillow.

I like to think of the library as my friend. We meet up every week or so and I mooch more books off the shelves (remember the 30+ I checked out for Beckett’s birthday?!). But, I have a problem with the quantity. And, I have been lovingly teasingly truthfully referred to as a “bibliophile” by my brother-in-law. I am often spotted juggling a sky-high armload of books, a toddler on one side and a dog leash in the other hand as I exit the library. I read fast, but not THAT fast.

One of the books that has been lingering on my dresser for months now (thank you, Mr. Library for continuing to let me renew) is The Barefoot Beekeeper by PJ Chandler. I heard through the grapevine about “top bar” beehives a few months ago and this book is the definitive source on this type of practice. Well, the book collected dust. I commiserated about not having enough time to read it. And, in the meantime, my beekeeping world fell apart as one, and eventually both, of my hives turned on me.

So, I reached out into the oh-so welcoming abyss that is the internet and was thrown a lifeline.

Kerry commented on the post and (Thank you whoever you are!) sent me a link to an eight-page pamphlet that Chandler has put together titled “Beekeeping: Pure & Simple”. The article length fit into the allotted time frame I have for reading and it was just the kick in the booty I needed to actually read that book on the shelf.

If you are interested in beekeeping on any level ranging from the total voyeur who just wants to talk about bees to the full throttle let’s-start-this-beekeeping-thing person – this article is for you. The first four pages talk about the “colony” and its classification as an organism as a whole. The idea of looking at a hive as a single unit living with the selfless view of “one for all and all for one” is fascinating and spot on. The description of how a hive prepares to swarm is literally a page-turner (no joke!) and the information on how bees interact as a cohesive unit is unbelievably cool. So, uh, read it – just the pamphlet if you want (I’ll understand).

The idea of beekeeping – pure and simple – hit me hard. First and foremost, it brought back the love and wonder I have for honeybees. It helped remove the personal stigma I had placed on myself and helped shed light on why the bees were doing this. It helped me understand that it wasn’t a case of them doing it to me anymore. It was a natural reaction and predilection that they were having to their surroundings, their environment and the intrusion I had placed on them. It wasn’t me.

So, once I was feeling a bit better and a little warmer inside, I got to thinking.

The idea of “barefoot beekeeping” considers the burden and infringement that we as beekeepers have placed on the honeybee. The modern practice of beekeeping exploits bees for their honey and corrupts their natural tendencies for our own benefit and gain. It only takes a moment’s glance into a beehive to realize that it is designed entirely for the ease of the human keeper – not the honeybee. A strange concept considering it’s the bees’ home.

Modern beekeeping has become a human-centered practice that focuses on reaping the benefits at the expense and cost of the honeybees’ health and sanity. I don’t know where this is taking me, but I know one thing – I don’t want to be where I’ve been. I don’t want to open up the hive come March and find death. I don’t want to open up my hive one sunny afternoon and find myself under attack. I do not, under any circumstances, want to question myself as a beekeeper. So, I will continue to explore, research and read (when I have time) about what is best for my bees. It is humbling to acknowledge that the honeybee has had it figured out for hundreds of thousands of years without mine or any other humans’ influence. The winds are a shiftin’ and I’m thinking “natural” beekeeping is gonna look a little different come next year.

beekeeping-pure-and-simple“>PDF Version of Beekeeping: Pure & Simple by PJ Chandler

You can pick up a copy of The Barefoot Beekeeper by PJ Chandler at our local bookstore, Village Books!

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6 Responses to Beekeeping: Rethinking an age-old practice

  1. Cutzi says:

    Interesting thoughts, Kate. I definitely don’t think you need to feel badly or like you have been “exploiting” your bees – I do believe that animals were put here for our use. With that, I also think good stewardship is key – the process of finding out the wisest and most mutually beneficial way to raise the bees is really intriguing to me. After all, happy animals make good food, right?

    • sacredbee says:

      I don’t feel like I have been exploiting them myself, but I do feel like I haven’t been the best steward that I could be to them. I don’t think I should think of myself as their “keeper” so much as their “care taker”. The modern practice of dropping thousands of hives in a field to pollinate almonds and asking the bees to work for a single pollen source and single nectar source (totally against their nature) and cram them in to a set-up home that breeds disease is a problem… And, yes, I agree – bees are here for our benefit, but as with all resources we cannot deplete them and overwork them for our benefit. They are naturally fascinating and happy animals DO make good food (most definitely!). 🙂

  2. Pingback: Beekeeping: Rethinking an age-old practice | The Sacred Bee's Blog | Beekeeping News

  3. James says:

    Someone with a deep abiding respect for the bees would do best to help their hives be as robust and healthy as possible. This would mean rejecting the claims of those who have nothing of value to say about actual practices, those who resort to the charlatan’s trick of promoting long-since discredited equipment designs as if they were “solutions” to “modern problems”.

    No one is forced to pollinate crops, but if you ever do, you will find that the bees do not focus on the blossoms the farmer would wish them to, but instead, always hedge their bets by foraging on a mix of sources. So, when pollinating apples, growers who do not cut the understory of dandelions do not get as many apple blossoms pollinated as they might have hoped. Bees easily forage as far as 14 km from their hives, so it is rare to find bees with only one choice of nectar/pollen. Almonds are an exception, as there is little else blooming when Almonds bloom, and the plantings truly are massive, but as I have said before “Almonds did do beekeeping what cocaine did to Miami.” Regardless, the myth of “large-scale beekeeping” being bad for bees is nonsense, promulgated by wannabe cult leaders with something they’d like to sell to the unwary suburban hobby beekeeper who will never tend even 2 dozen hives.

    The excellent book “The Wisdom Of The Hive” by Dr. Tom Seeley of Cornell would educate and inform where Chandler obfuscates and confuses the reader, completely contradicting Chandler’s basic premises. The German book “The Buzz About Bees” by Dr. Jürgen Tautz is at last available in English, and is another fascinating book that actually educates the reader about verifiable bee behavior and biology, and thus helps the beekeeper understand how to care for the bees in tangible ways that measurably improve bee health and welfare.
    Again, self-proclaimed “all-natural” beekeeping is debunked by even a small dose of science as being nothing more than being different for the sake of being different, with a resulting negative impact on the robustness of the colony.

    As for the claim about a “set-up home that breeds disease”, this claim evinces that there are wide swaths of readily-available knowledge that remain to be mastered before someone making such a claim will be able to care adequately for even a single hive of bees. Bees are able to thrive in any cavity larger than about 1.5 cubic feet, but if you rescue enough colonies from structures and downed trees so that civilians will not kill the bees as we do, you find that bees both like to make VERTICAL hives (think of a hollowed-out tree- is it a vertical cavity, or horizontal?) and that they like to attach their comb to as many surfaces as they can, most often resulting in sheets of comb that are attached to the exterior of the cavity at the top, sides, and bottom. Yes, the bees realize that comb, especially comb filled with nectar, is heavy, and that comb attached only at the top has limits on how much it will support before it tears away from the top surface. This implies that the hapless owner of a top-bar hive will be constantly fighting with the bees over a simple structural issue, cutting away combs from the side and bottom of the hive simply to be able to inspect the combs. He/she will also find that the combs will tear away from the top bars, crashing down to crush bees, kill brood, and otherwise make a mess. This problem is why so many photos of top bar hives show either unfinished combs (those with a cantilever-curve bottoms) or combs that are wired or tied to the top bar with wire or string – the combs tore away. The only “good news” here is that top-bar hive colonies seldom grow strong enough to gather enough nectar at any one time to fill combs with nectar or honey so that they will tear.

    And this may be a key “advantage” with alternative approaches like trying to force bees to accept a horizontal hive – the approach is well-known to result in less robust colonies that do not thrive as well, and this results in a smaller, and less “scary” hive for the novice or more experienced beekeeper who fears his/her bees deep in their heart. Perhaps a smaller, weaker hive is desired by some. This is not good for the bees, but good for the beekeeper intimidated by his/her bees. It is a serious problem if you truly maintain a respect for bees.

    This problem is why Langstroth’s moveable-frame approach, and his utilization of bee space in equipment design revolutionized beekeeping 200 years ago. But even a approach proven by 200 years of success is not enough for someone hawking a book, or a lecture fee, or an expensive “coffin for bees”.

    Further, bee colonies enthusiastically expand in a vertical direction much more willingly than in a horizontal one. This why one can see bees drawing frames out and utilizing the center frames of several boxes stacked atop each other, leaving the outermost frames untouched (the so-called “chimney effect”). What this means is that Chandler’s hives, forced into very unnatural horizontal arrangements, will draw a few combs and then swarm unless the beekeeper constantly moves new top-bars between the existing colony and the hive entrance to make it obvious to the bees that they have NOT expanded to the point where they should swarm. This sort of “comb at a time” management (rather than “box-10 combs at a time management”) is what keeps colonies forced into so-called “top-bar hives” small, weak, unproductive, and sickly.

    But don’t take my word for it – the hive is called the “Kenyan Top-Bar Hive”, so read what the Kenyans have to say about this design at Honeycare Africa.

    Then you can go further and speak with Ann Harmon (of VA) and Bob Cole (of NC) who travel the planet as volunteer instructors and consultants for USAID, educating the poorest of the poor in pretty much the same basic message that HoneyCare Africa has – ditch those horizontal hives, and do your bees a favor. Bob and Ann will not mince words at all, but they’ve both been keeping bees longer than most beekeepers have been able to drive.

    The bottom line here for most 3rd world beekeepers is that “If you take care of your bees, they will take care of you”. Honey in the 3rd world is a way to make a cash income, get out of subsistence farming, and send one’s kids to school, attain a better life. Here in the industrialized world, no one really cares if persistently-ignorant advice kills some number of hobbyist hives every year, but there are places where this would be a tragedy for an entire family. In those places, a deep and abiding respect for the bees, combined with a hard-nosed approach to science is the only hope for the health of the bees, and the future of the beekeeper’s kid.

    But, I understand – for some., it is not enough to merely keep these amazing creatures, you want to be able to brag that they are “organic”, or “all-natural” or make some sort of superlative statement that proves that you are more worthy, or more enlightened than the next fellow. You wanna feel more “natural”? More “green”? Smugly superior to your fellow beekeepers? Try a Warre hive, it is at least vertical!

    But trust the massive stack of controlled studies, the bees really like frames, enjoy equipment that respects bee space, and thrive with modern practices developed “since Langstroth”. Anyone who tells you different is trying to sell your something you don’t need.

    • sacredbee says:

      Hello James,

      I appreciate your time and the consideration that you put into your comment (and the information!). You clearly know a great deal about beekeeping and I look forward to reading the book titles that you have provided. I completely understand that “Langstroth” is the definitive source on beekeeping methods. But, it is always wise to reevaluate, reconsider and possibly readjust our methods as time and conditions allow. Thank you for stopping by the Sacred Bee’s Blog and I look forward to hearing more from you and what you resources are.

      -Kate

    • sacredbee says:

      Another quick note – I do not attempt or wish to feel superior and I am taken aback by that assumption. I am not in shape or manner solely focused on being “green” or “more natural” when it comes to beekeeping. I want to do right by my bees – whatever approach that is. Be it – natural, sustainable, organic – whatever. And, my primary goal is to educate myself as best as I can in order to accomplish this – from all sorts of sources.

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