Few industries use so many interchangeable terms to describe their equipment and methodology as beekeeping. For example — the individual boxes that make up a Langstroth hive stack may be referred to simply as supers, or they may be called deeps, mediums or shallows, an indication of their size. The beeswax comb that the bees build inside their nest might be called wax, or foundation, or comb, or brood comb, or honeycomb — similar terms and yet they mean different things. And how does one sort out the nuances of colony versus hive? Or frame versus top bar?
Add into this mix the glowing terms that are commonly used to describe honey, such as pure, raw, natural and organic, and now there’s even more room for confusion. Organic is a regulated term with a specific legal definition, but pure, raw and natural are not. Organic honey is quite difficult to come by – since it requires that all the forage the bees visit and all the nectar and pollen they collect must be organic – and it’s nearly impossible to know that without having ownership of and control over many hundreds of acres of land. But the words natural, raw and pure, while they are lovely words, and conjure up beautiful visuals of glowing amber liquid, have no specific legal definition in the food industry.
This is why it’s important to be very specific when you are speaking, and to ask direct questions when you are listening – so that you are sure that the information being exchanged is accurate.
Another aspect of beekeeping where having a clear understanding of the terminology is becoming very important is when beekeepers are considering the purchase of bees for starting new hives. Depending on the protocol of the source apiary, the bees may have been treated with “heavy chemicals” – including antibiotics, and miticides containing organophosphates and synthetic pyrethroids; with “soft chemicals” such as formic or oxalic acids; with nothing but essential oils or other not-toxic options; or - with absolutely nothing.
There are some terms coming into common use to categorize these protocols – including “chemical-free” and “treatment-free” – but just like in all other areas of beekeeping, these unregulated terms leave room for interpretation and confusion. So here again it’s important to ask questions to get the answers that you need. In "The Thinking Beekeeper," I suggest that beekeepers can and should ask pointed questions about what treatments have been used in the apiary they are buying bees from. This is important to your own beekeeping – but it’s important on a different and deeper level as well… Because only by knowing this information can you help to support the apiaries that are working to shift the crucial paradigm - away from the use of toxic chemicals in beehives and agriculture, and toward methods that support the bees’ natural systems.
So - ask the questions! Get the answers. You deserve to know.
Learn more about beekeeping on Christy Hemenway's website, Gold Star Honeybees.
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