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Natural Beekeeping: A Reckoning

There is a great deal of argument about how “naturally” we beekeepers should manage our colonies.  But the mere act of “keeping” bees implies that it is unnatural.  Truly natural “beekeeping” would be to set out empty cavities (hives or other hollows) for swarms to move into (but not more cavities than would “naturally” exist in the landscape − and even that is questionable if the honey bee is an introduced species in your area).  Then if  swarms happen to move in, the colonies could naturally exist in balance with nature and competition with each other.  You could observe them, but any intervention on your part would be unnatural.  And when each of them eventually die, you’d wait for a new swarm to move in.

But most of us want to help our colonies to thrive.  For my first 20 years of beekeeping, I eschewed feeding any sugar syrup, since it would be “unnatural.”  Then one day when I was talking with a commercial beekeeper friend, he said “I don’t know whether feeding syrup is natural or not, but I can tell you that a colony certainly responds positively when fed a gallon of syrup.”  That sentence made me reevaluate what aspects of my management were based upon what was good for my bees, as opposed to some idealistic dogma.

For example, it is entirely unnatural to place empty combs above the broodnest (since a natural colony always builds and fills from the top down), but placing empty combs there during a nectar flow sure helps the colony to draw comb and store honey.

Honey bees also evolved to exploit the vertical cavities in hollow trees, and although they can adapt to horizontal cavities, horizontal hives would be unnatural and more difficult for a colony to overwinter in.

As far as being “treatment free” (against varroa), every ethical standard for animal husbandry (including Certified Organic) calls for intervention to help one’s livestock to deal with parasites.  There is no excuse for allowing a colony to suffer an ugly death from varroa and deformed wing virus.  Selective breeding for mite resistance does not require any colony deaths  — the Modified Bond Method (which I personally use) allows one to select for resistance without causing colonies to needlessly suffer.

Anyway, I felt that the following article in ABJ covered the subject of the ethical responsibilities involved in being a bee-keeper, and asked the author to allow me to post it.

Natural Beekeeping: A Reckoning

Fred Jones

First published in ABJ March 2023

“Nature is not benevolent; with ruthless indifference she makes all things serve their purposes.”  -Lao Tzu

Natural Beekeeping: A Reckoning “Nature is not benevolent; with ruthless indifference she makes all things serve their purposes.” -Lao Tzu

Less than 50 years ago a young man aspired to a career working with animals. At the beginning of his third year of veterinary school he was assigned a “surgery” dog. Through the course of the semester the dog was subjected to multiple unneeded procedures. After the final surgery the dog was euthanized. Pain medications were not part of post-surgical protocols.

How could a person reconcile a career helping animals with committing such cruel acts on a helpless, abandoned dog? Was it enough to justify these events by claiming “good intentions”? Was it OK to pass the buck and blame the experts, his mentors?

Similar ethical dilemmas are now less common. Guidelines for animal welfare were first developed in 1965 when The Farm Animal Welfare Council laid down a set of conditions meant to apply to all animals under human care. Those conditions, known as the Five Freedoms, have been subsequently adopted globally by research labs, zoos, aquariums, farms, animal shelters, and yes, veterinary schools.

Our changing landscape, the introduction of new pests and pathogens, development of deadly pesticides, and climate change have all played a role in massive colony deaths every year since the 90s. Some claim conventional beekeeping techniques are also to blame. In response, natural beekeeping has gained a broad audience particularly among new beekeepers wanting to save the bees.

An online search for natural beekeeping will result in a multitude of definitions and approaches. Most look to how bees live in the wild as a guide for successful beekeeping. Some reason that human interaction with honey bees is unique in that Apis mellifera has never been fully domesticated. But bees are not alone in the ability to tread the line between life under our care and life in the wild. In the US, populations of donkeys, horses, dogs, chickens, cats and pigs exist and, in some cases, even flourish in nature. Does the ability for a species to survive in the wild imply that copying nature will yield a stress-free existence and better health? Is it valid to simply replicate conditions in the wild as a guide for animal care? Why is there so little promotion of natural husbandry for other species yet is continues to gain traction for honey bees? It has been said that natural beekeeping puts the needs of bees before those of the beekeeper. This article will explore just that. Let’s look at how conventional and natural beekeeping compare under the microscope of the Five Freedoms.

  1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst

Honey has been central to man’s relationship with bees throughout history. Evidence for human interaction with honey bees extends back almost 9000 years in the form of cave paintings depicting honey hunters on cliffs. Demand for honey continues to this day with US consumption of honey in 2021 exceeding 600 million pounds. Domestic production, however, provided less than a quarter of that amount and fraudulent importation of adulterated honey is well documented. Yet accusations that harvesting honey from colonies amounts to exploitation is one of the justifications for natural beekeeping.

It has long been recognized that under ideal conditions strong honey bee colonies will produce quantities of honey that exceed colony needs. Knowing how much honey a colony requires for survival is critical to knowing how much surplus can be harvested and is part of the art of beekeeping. That determination is dependent on such variables as when the harvest occurs, the likelihood of a summer dearth, the possibility of a fall nectar flow, the length and severity of winter, and the population of the hive as it enters winter. One strategy is to simply leave the honey on the colony over the course of the winter and harvest the remainder in the spring. Doing so risks the possibility that the honey will crystalize in the comb and extracting crystalized honey can turn an already tough job into a nightmare. Conventional beekeepers weigh these factors and harvest honey with the goal to leave enough for colony needs and allow some extra as a buffer. I once salvaged a colony from a tree cut by a logging crew. It was mid-February and this large colony had only about two pounds of honey remaining with at least a month before a reliable nectar flow. Starvation was inevitable. Sometimes even nature gets it wrong.

Beekeepers, both conventional and natural, are probably in agreement that honey and pollen comprise the best diet for bees. They differ in that natural beekeepers eschew the feeding of sugar and syrup. Conventional beekeepers believe that when conditions merit, the augmentation of a colony’s food stores with pollen patties, fondant, sugar patties or granular sugar can make the difference between survival and starvation.

  1. Freedom from Discomfort by Providing an Appropriate Environment

Langstroth hives have been the industry standard in this country for 170 years, long before the advent of the massive colony losses that began in the 1980s and continue to this day. Their success is undeniable and claims that this format contributes to recent colony losses is nonsense. Honey bees are remarkably adaptable to a wide variety of cavities. Claims that one type of hive yields a healthier environment for a colony remain unsubstantiated. Research has demonstrated that, given the option, bees in the wild prefer a smaller cavity than what is used by conventional beekeepers. Natural beekeepers often choose a restricted hive size knowing it will result in a greater likelihood of swarming. As will be described later, swarming can have a detrimental impact on colonies.

  1. Freedom from Pain, Injury, and Disease

Varroa mites and the viruses they transmit are likely the single greatest management problem for beekeepers world-wide. Tracheal mites were at one time of similar concern, however, honey bees have apparently developed a significant level genetic of resistance or tolerance. Will honey bees follow the same path to genetic control of Varroa mites and, if so, how long will it take?

Fortunately, there has been some progress in finding a genetic defense against Varroa. But for it to be effective it must be sustainable and therein lies the problem. Natural beekeepers advocate allowing natural selection to occur. No colonies are treated, thus, colonies susceptible to Varroa infestation perish which will bring an end to their gene pool. Survivor colonies will prevail and carry forth their superior family lines. Complicating this strategy is the polyandry of honey bees. Virgin queens fly to drone congregation areas (DCAs) to mate with multiple drones. DCAs are populated with drones from a variety of sources in the region. Meaningful natural selection would require either isolation as has apparently occurred in some remote areas like the Arnot forest of New York. Without isolation, hybridization with other genetic lines can dilute the desired trait.

Conventional beekeeping approaches disease in the same manner as veterinary or human medicine. Prevention and treatment are the rule and the only compassionate option considered. Imagine if veterinarians proclaimed dogs would no longer receive heartworm preventative in order to allow natural selection to occur. What if physicians no longer treated children for scarlet fever for the same reason? It is simply unthinkable. Instead, many conventional beekeepers utilize queens with known Varroa resistance. When possible they set up drone out yards with bees exhibiting desirable traits. Monitoring mite levels determines which colonies are in need of treatment and which colonies are showing resistance. Until highly heritable Varroa resistance is discovered, monitoring and treatment appear to be the only compassionate way forward.

  1. Freedom to Express Normal Behavior

Swarming is accepted and encouraged by many natural beekeepers. It is reproduction at the colony level and happens in most wild colonies one or more times annually. Swarming provides a brood break for both the swarm and the parent colony. Since Varroa replicates in brood, these broodless periods can significantly lower mite numbers and transmission of Deformed Wing Virus (DWV). Yet a study done in the UK showed Deformed Wing Virus levels were 2.4 times higher in feral colonies than in managed colonies. Swarming is hardly sufficient to manage mite populations. Research shows that survival rates of swarms in the wild are at best 25% after one year. Even the founding (parent) colony is at risk since their fate is dependent on the successful mating flight of the new virgin queen. All told, swarms result in a lot of dead bees!

While swarming might be considered by some to be natural, it is actually a response to specific hive conditions. During the course of a year most bees raised in an established feral colony will not participate in a swarming event. Swarming is hardly normal day to day behavior. Conventional beekeepers try to prevent the conditions that lead to swarming or they simulate that behavior by splitting crowded colonies in a controlled manner. In so doing they prevent the likely death of over 50% of the colony population. Likewise, reproductive control in other species is sound management practice and well accepted.

  1. Freedom from Fear and Distress

Champions of natural beekeeping subscribe to minimal colony manipulations claiming these place stresses on bees leaving them less healthy. Indeed, if a beekeeper does not monitor or treat for disease, chooses to use small hives, allows colonies to swarm at will, and does not monitor honey stores or feed if indicated then what need is there for inspections? Another word for this is neglect.

For conventional beekeepers monitoring and working colonies is the heart and soul of our craft. How else are we to know if a queen is failing, a disease is present, how much honey or pollen is present, if a colony is getting crowded, or how well the colony is prepared for winter? What better way could there be for a new beekeeper to learn how to read frames, to gain expertise in recognizing problems and to witness the seasonal rhythms of a colony than to pull frames and experience the sights, the smells and the sounds of the bees? Certainly, it can set back a colony to some extent. But it is a small price to pay for the knowledge gained which leads to a better state of health for the apiary.

The attraction of natural beekeeping is understandable. We are conditioned to hold nature in awe. National Parks and Wilderness areas provide a strong sense of pride for Americans. Advertisers embrace nature; for example large numbers of car and truck commercials are set in the back country. Even our diet is tied to nature; think free range chickens, grass fed beef, nonGMO organic vegetables, and wild-caught salmon. They are all seen as preferable to what is produced from conventional factory farms. Media attention to the plight of honey bees has created a lot of concern. Sadly, it is well meaning people who are drawn into the movement. They are convinced that something is wrong, and that the solution involves a radical change. Natural beekeeping is an easy sell. But making it work is another story altogether.

The reality of natural beekeeping is that it takes a toll not only on honey bees, but also on prospective beekeepers. My evidence is anecdotal, but it is reinforced by conversations with others in local beekeeping associations. Bereft beginners seldom endure more than two years of repeated colony losses. In this regard, natural beekeeping appears to fail in meeting the needs of both the bees and the beekeeper. Will beekeeping follow trends similar to other segments of agriculture with stewardship falling into the hands of a shrinking number of people?

The future of beekeeping is filled with challenges. How do we best deal with invasive pests and pathogens in our bees? How do we select for genetic solutions to disease yet maintain the genetic diversity crucial to the success of honey bees as a species? Studies of feral bee populations can yield important information for improving our knowledge of honey bees, and help to meet these and other threats. The lives of feral colonies should not be a guidebook for beekeepers. The aura of idealism surrounding nature does not absolve us of the duty to think critically about our actions when it comes to keeping bees.

My surgery experience as a vet student led to a lifetime of guilt. Good intentions can have unintended consequences. I now know that even the most charismatic, impassioned experts are fallible. A categorical defense of natural beekeeping may stand on a philosophical, ecological, biodynamic, or Darwinian basis. But when it comes to animal welfare it fails miserably. Wild bees will continue to exist without our help. Colonies under our watch are deserving of nurture and care.