How beekeeping CAN save the bees

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.

11 Replies to “How beekeeping CAN save the bees”

  1. Thanks, this is very interesting. My friend in Ireland has been keeping bees for years and has planted a very rich area of flowers for bees too. On the other side of her stream it is more wild and natural and I did see a range of other wild pollinators about. I have been toying with the idea on our woodland in Spain but do not want to upset the wild pollinators here. We now have much longer periods of drought too and providing more flowers might not be easy. Careful thinking through is needed with all our actions now and learning how to look out for greenwashing!

    1. Thanks so much for commenting. It is a minefield, but I think they do bring a benefit if done carefully and in full knowledge of the facts. As you say, resources are very scarce and we have to be sure we can provide hives with what they need without encroaching on the wild populations.

  2. A really high percentage of the ‘swarm calls’ our local beekeeping association receives are about bumble bee nests. These ideally should be left in place and not moved, so I think the BBKA are right not to encourage calling beekeepers out for them. As for wasps/hornets, the average beekeeper would not be able to relocate those either. It’s difficult as only a few beekeepers such as yourself collect swarms and they are hard pushed for time during swarm season. Perhaps best for reassurance to be given over phone or email rather than beekeepers having to drive miles to find a wasps nest at the end.

    1. Hi Emily, thanks for your comment. I think what I was trying to say is that of course, it needs to be established what species are involved, and thankfully with WhatsApp etc it’s been a long time since I have ended up going out to a “swarm” which turned out to be something else, and we can usually advise if we can see the situation. And you’re absolutely right, bumblebee nests are best left alone. I am talking about the grey area where that isn’t an option: there are pest controllers who will move them but there are a lot more who won’t or can’t. As beekeepers we have skills and expertise which could, if suitably acknowledged, be put to good use with other species. As I said in my Ivy Bee post, the response from pest control was to “come out and spray them” which seems a tremendous shame.

      1. It’s tricky – I’d like to see it made illegal for pest controllers to spray bees at all, unless in exceptional circumstances. It is good that we have technology like WhatsApp nowadays, to help cut down on unnecessary trips. Sometimes I get a bit frustrated by members of the public who don’t want to take photos or even give a basic description of the ‘bees’, but say things like ‘I thought someone could come and tell me’ or ‘they all look the same to me’!

      2. Exactly! There is so little knowledge with the general public, and folk are unwilling to share their space with nature even if it is doing no harm. I do think we Beeks have a vast amount of skill and knowledge which goes unappreciated at times…

  3. Great article, thanks for sharing your wisdom! I practice ‘treatment-free’ beekeeping and it’s been challenging, but I’ve no interest in doing it any other way. I don’t know any beekeepers around here who are trying it, meaning no sugar syrup either (except right after a split for a short adjustment period). I don’t share the concern of protecting wild pollinator species in our area b/c we still have lots of them around here in East Texas and I rarely see wasps, solitary species, etc., on the same blooms as the honeybees. It’s been all about observation and the bees have informed me on their preferences so much! And of course, finding more ‘rogue’ beekeepers like yourself to learn from. I’m grateful for all the natural beekeeping experiences and stories I can find!

    1. Thank you for your comment! Yes, I think it is fascinating to see where they forage. I think often there’s a reluctance to let go of the control with honeybees, but I do feel it is fairer on them in the long run!

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