Unsustainable Beekeeping

I started my beekeeping journey back in 2009, when following a particularly interesting module of my Natural Sciences degree with the Open University, I learnt about superorganisms and eusociality, aka colonial insects.

I realised that it was possible to keep one’s very own social insects – honey bees! – but I quickly became confused and disillusioned by the instructions I was given for looking after these incredible insects by my local Beekeeping Association, books, and other beekeepers. It was all about getting them to ‘behave’, and discussions about ‘bad’ or ‘uncooperative’ bees, and how they ‘never do what you want them to do’. I have a background in farming and ecology, and after investigating some different ways of viewing and ministering to my colonies, I struck out a different pathway, based on observation and very much working with the colonies as individuals, and others seemed to be interested in a more holistic and less interventionist way of working.

So, I started teaching what I had learned thus far, with the caveat that I didn’t have all the answers, couldn’t guarantee outcomes, accepted the boom and bust of colonies and reiterating that every year would be different and that ultimately, beekeeping was not an exact science, and allowing a sense of wonder to prevail was really the most important factor.

Many people liked this approach and came on my courses, but probably half would then go on to pursue more traditional methodologies in order to feel they had more control, or to produce more honey, or prevent swarming or colony failure. I totally understand that accepting a lack of control is incredibly difficult, and watching your lone colony fail or founder is really tricky if you are used to relationships with animals (mammals/poultry) where you more often than not have complete control over their likely survival, especially if you have invested time and money in a hive, equipment, an expensive honey extractor (!) and – if you’ve bought a nuc – a fair amount on the bees themselves.

The general narrative of beekeeping is, in my experience, deeply unhelpful and full of portent and reprimands, highlighting failures and putting the production of honey as a reflection of success. It is selfish, shortsighted, and promotes a disconnection with the very landscape the bees rely upon.

If I continue to offer courses, obviously I will be instructing people on a more sympathetic way of managing bees, but it is still encouraging folk to take up beekeeping. I’m not remotely suggesting that beekeeping is wrong, but encouraging folk to start sustainably with so much distracting and seductive information contrary to what I teach about sustainable beekeeping being available, it doesn’t feel right.

I will carry on with my own couple of hives for teaching purposes as well as my conservation/biodiversity projects, and continue to offer support and mentoring via my blog and Patreon, but putting myself in the competitive arena of general beginner beekeeper courses I no longer feel is right or sustainable. I am also no longer prepared to justify my methodologies to people who have spent a fraction of the time rigorously evaluating their beekeeping activities compared to me.

It’s a really difficult decision and I don’t want to appear like I am abandoning the Cause, but I feel my energy is better directed in areas where I already have a little influence rather than pushing against the current paradigm. I will also be focussing much more on forage provision and biodiversity as both those areas, while also aiding honey bees, are far more pressing concerns. I shall also be baking more cakes!

12 thoughts on “Unsustainable Beekeeping

  1. Unfortunately… my experience has been that Beekeeping Groups are more Competitive than Cooperative 🤦🏻‍♀️🥴🤯—Why❓… it’s not like I can entice their bees to follow me home-🥴—I wish I could… lol‼️ I find that the very experienced Beekeepers are stingy with information/ideas. True stmt… ask 3 beekeepers 1 questions…get 5 different answers—True… it’s Nature… Thank you for TRYING to support the Cause thru classes… foraging and plants and other ways support the environment and are desperately needed too🐝🐝🐝

  2. So many different views alone create diversity and beekeepers are diverse. It is this very diversity that protects and moves us forward. Do not let the politics overpower.

  3. I’ve been ‘keeping’ bees for 5 summers… so far every year hasn’t gone to ‘plan’ as traditional beekeeping values would judge… I realise the bees have their own ‘plan’ so I’m gonna let them be, and just enjoy having a hive to look at occasionally and wonder at their ways, reminding me that humans ways are inherently selfish and to allow nature to do it’s thing without intervention.

    1. Hi Ben, thanks for your comment. I agree – we really need to evaluate “success” as something a little more inclusive and holistic when it comes to the bees in our care. Keeping a sense of wonder is absolutely essential in my view, so pleased to hear you feel the same 🙂

  4. Hi Jen
    I can understand your logic, but think it is a pity. Often things go full circle. If we take the use of foundation, for example, You taught no foundation. Other courses/teachers regaled in horror. But now I understand they are advising foundation less frames due to potential insecticide within the wax.
    If there aren’t teachers that go against the grain, then students won’t see both sides of the argument and be able to come to their own conclusions once they have examined all the methods.
    So please reconsider…your students may well come home to roost and you may be doing far more good than you realise.

    1. Hi Alexa, thank you so much for your reply! I think you are right about things coming full circle, and hopefully we will move away from honey-obsessed overly-managed beekeeping. I think my difficulty with offering beginner courses is that it still promotes the idea that starting beekeeping is a thing to be encouraged, and I feel my skills are better placed educating about bees without it being about promoting beekeeping, if that makes sense. I am still offering lots of beginner advice and bespoke courses and workshops, as well as the Patreon, I am just removing myself from the mainstream. If people want to come and find me, they are welcome to do so 🙂

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