Sustainable Beefarming

Those of you who have been following my blog for any length of time will know that I am a champion of small-scale, observational, hands-off beekeeping. But as my background is in agriculture and ecology, I am primarily concerned with how honey bees work and impact the wider environment, hence my interest in both keeping my bees and in teaching others through my sustainable beekeeping courses to keep their bees in a way that doesn’t negatively affect the local pollinator population. Regenerative beekeeping goes one step further in using beehives to initiate a program of increasing natural forage provision and biodiversity actively to benefit not just pollinators but other wildlife too.

My (albeit limited) experience of large-scale beekeeping is not particularly favourable, as it seems to go against all the above principles and as with any intensive farming, the focus on productivity is often at the expense of what is sustainable and right for soil health, wildlife, and all the other factors we seem to take for granted in nature.

Imagine my pleasant surprise to be contacted by Charlie Collins, a beefarmer in Kent who asked if I would like to come and visit him and his bee yard with view to working together to provide experience days and training from his site. Although we are at different ends of the beekeeping spectrum, we both feel strongly that honey bees have a valuable role to play, but that their presence should not be detrimental. Charlie breeds all his own replacement queens and bees using his own hygienic stock; adopts a pragmatic and progressive approach to Varroa control; keeps his bees within the county; has all his honey production in-house; and champions the philosophy of local Kentish honey, even though the idea of maintaining a distinct provenance with this valuable foodstuff is still a major hurdle to overcome. I really enjoyed hearing about the ways Charlie is thinking expansively and productively while keeping sound environmental principles in place: I am hugely appreciative of the work farmers and landowners do to keep this balance.

At the Collins’ site there is a large wildlife pond in the making, and they have planted 300 trees to provide both forage and habitat. Sustainability equals commercial resilience, and Charlie’s business practice reflects this in his hive management and contractual obligations. Adding an educational aspect not only reinforces this commitment to the environment when beekeeping at scale, but allows others to benefit through teaching and advocacy.

I only have a small number of hives here at my apiary, and I don’t open them up on courses. I do understand, however, that seeing bees being worked is helpful, and having a range of small hives housing bees that are quiet and used to manipulations means I have more flexibility with what I can offer people regarding beekeeping tuition. It is also hugely informative for people to see how a large beekeeping operation is able to achieve a profitable business while maintaining sustainability at its core. In such a business the usual beekeeping challenges and maintenance regarding swarming, spring checks, Varroa control, honey harvesting, and feeding are very different from the standard BBKA methodologies. In a way those processes are more similar to the observational techniques of low-intervention beekeeping. When you run your bees as a business you have to know them well, understand their needs and capabilities, and be able to read a hive situation without extensive manipulations simply because that is the most efficient way to behave. I am really looking forward to working with Charlie and his team this coming summer and documenting our collaborative efforts.

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