We live in complicated times. Grass-fed meat or veganism; plastic use or glass and metal; electric cars or public transport. “Save the Bees” is similarly fraught with problems and there is a vast amount of misinformation regarding pollinators and their relative impact.
I recently saw a Twitter thread about the introduction of beehives on to a brownfield site in London, and how they were part of the regeneration of the area. This caused a sweep of comments about how they were part of the problem not the solution, with their nectar-grabbing, pollen-harvesting, disease-ridden habits compromising the native bee species in the locality. There is undoubtedly truth in this: varroa mites have crossed from honeybees to certainly bumblebees and no doubt other species too (Varroa destructor arrived on imported bees from the mite’s native Asia), and their efficiency with gathering prodigious stores for their colony is mind-blowing. They absolutely do outcompete other pollinators, and occupy a different niche from solitary bees and bumbles and consequently are not actually the most effective type of pollinator, technically speaking.
However, beekeeping does not have to be done in such a way that it is detrimental to the local population of pollinating insects, and in fact it can encourage good husbandry to all wildlife if done correctly. Human nature is such that we often find it difficult to engage with things unless we have actual knowledge, or rather, once we understand something more fully we are able to respond to any challenges from an informed position. Yes: we should be planting nectar rich flowers anyway, but once you understand how much is needed to support a bee colony, that ‘should’ becomes a ‘must’. We should be reducing our use of insecticides, and thinking carefully before mowing, or grubbing out our dandelions, but having a colony of bees in the garden makes this far more relatable and so there is a higher likelihood of it happening. Wider impacts regarding buying insecticide-free/organic food, and not buying cheap imported honey are another knock-on effect of owning or at least knowing about bees. Honeybees are the charismatic microfauna that everyone knows, and it seems a shame to throw the baby out with the bathwater in our efforts to reduce beewashing in the media. We can use honeybees as a way of introducing the concept of insect-friendly practises rather than simply focussing wholly on them.
We also have to bear in mind that there are many honey bee colonies living wild, although they are feral rather than strictly wild bees. These colonies in chimneys, trees, and other cavities across the country will swarm to reproduce if they are thriving, and if they are not collected, could settle somewhere they shouldn’t and end up being destroyed. Bees make homes in all sorts of places and it requires skill, expertise and equipment to remove them safely and in such a way that they have a chance of survival. Of course, there are swarms from kept bees but there are many that issue from unknown colonies so it is not simply bad management that produces bees. I do not advise buying packages from a bee farmer for beginners on my courses, but instead show them how to give a home to a swarm, thereby diverting a potentially problematic situation while not propping up the bee breeding industry. I also do not suggest buying in queens or making numerous splits to increase colony numbers, but allow nature to take its course. I do not feed my bees sugar syrup, as this requires resources to be brought in rather than providing a more natural source. Keeping a couple of colonies in a domestic situation means we are spreading out the hives rather than having great swathes of boxes in one small area which is completely unnatural.
I am not criticising commercial honeybee operations, but those of us who keep bees on a smaller scale can afford to be less production-oriented and focus more on the holistic approach.
We do also get some return for our investment in these feral swarms. I only take a small amount of honey from hives who can spare it, but it is a useful and valuable natural medicine and increasing the availability of a pure, raw, vital product for health benefits from a sympathetic and local beekeeper is surely a good thing. This precious commodity is appreciated so much more when you have seen it produced, and have wondered at just what it takes to make a jar of honey.
We can also watch and listen and commune with our bees in a way that is not possible with other species of pollinator. Of course there are bee hotels with viewing windows, but it is not the same involvement that one has with a hive. Precisely because they are managed means we can monitor and observe them and gain a greater understanding of bees as a whole when we see what pollen they are bringing in, and how they react to new forage when it becomes available for example. It draws us in to what is happening to our immediate surroundings: if you are relying on your bees to fend for themselves you become acutely aware of what is available for them, and how to supplement it. Every single thing I grow in the garden is good for pollinators, and I choose my fruit and vegetable plants based on whether or not they are beneficial for insects. It is a problem that many of the conventional beekeeping courses only discuss forage in relation to the honey crop. It should be mandatory to assess and if need be provide forage for your bees before embarking on installing a colony, simply to offset the impact and more than that, be aware of the other species that need our help. Beekeeping should be about all bees, and we should take it upon ourselves to learn the ways of other species so that our apiaries can become havens for all sorts of insects. Other wildlife too: my hives harbour numerous woodlice, earwigs, and spiders. In the summer, lizards and slowworms bask on the metal roofs and mice nest in the warm dry cavity underneath the stand.
This all-bee aspect is brought home when I am called out to “swarms”: bumblebee nests, solitary bee aggregations, as well as wasps and hornets. Sadly, the British Beekeeping Association website clearly states on its website that beekeepers should only be called out to swarms, so honeybees, and us beekeepers should not be troubled with other (non-profitable) species. This is completely wrong in my view. We should learn about other species so that we can help and advise and yes, don our bee suits if necessary and go help. After all, our bees operate in exactly the same environment as other pollinators so to exclude those other than honey bees on the grounds that we can’t hive and farm them is short-sighted in the extreme. Pest control will step in if we don’t, and most of the time even wasp and hornet nests can be accommodated so the “bee good; wasp bad” narrative can finally change. Many people just need reassurance that their property and/or family won’t be harmed by having a colony or community of bees living near them, and in the vast majority of cases, this is something we can do.
So, all beekeeping is not created equal, and in just the same way that “eating meat” can mean very different things, from downright destructive and unethical to supportive and regenerative, it absolutely IS possible to keep a hive of honey bees in such a way that it encourages insight, awareness and positive action at the frontline of the very real and worrying decline of our insect population.