Shifting the Paradigm Toward More Natural Beekeeping

Reader Contribution by Christy Hemenway
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Remember when bees weren’t in the news? When they were just a normal part of daily life on the farm? There they were, lazily buzzing in and out of their hives, doing their bee thing … virtually ignored by beekeepers until time to rob the hives for honey …

What’s happened? What changed that we now have problems with acronyms like CCD, which stands for Colony Collapse Disorder, and documentaries about this mysterious bee disease that scientists can’t even study effectively because the primary symptom of the problem is that the bees just disappear?

Bees lived for millions of years with no help or intervention from beekeepers, and now beekeepers can barely keep their bees alive. What on earth have we done?

Think back over our short agricultural history for just a second … and yep, a second is about all the longer it takes to realize …
We’ve been on the fast track to “Bigger, Better, Faster, More” for awhile now. We’ve “improved” some things in agriculture to such an extent that the use of chemicals is now considered normal, even required. We’ve created an entire industrial food system that depends upon them.

And now, there’s some sort of problem with honeybees, everybody’s heard that — but nobody knows what it is, or why. Science is looking for the cause of course, but some folks might be tempted to say that the reason(s) is(are) obvious.

One cause may be that the use of pesticides both inside and outside the conventional beehive has grown commonplace over the course of the last twenty-five years. So we may have reached the tipping point where the accumulated chemical treatments are making bees sick.

Another aspect of agriculture that began to change as the “Bigger is Better” mindset began to take hold has seriously affected the diversity of farming. Enter monocropping – which allows us to be very efficient — and to grow huge expanses of all one crop! Efficient in its way, yes, but this situation creates a nutritional “desert” for bees, since outside the short timeframe during which that one crop is in bloom, there is nothing for the bees to eat!

In this way, the monoculture method of farming helped to create the migratory pollination industry. If bees couldn’t live somewhere year round, then we had to “bring the bees to the trees”… and this took us a step further from nature’s original plan when we started trucking bees, locked in boxes, across the country to pollinate such crops as the almond trees.

So now perhaps, with Colony Collapse Disorder, the bees are warning us — acting as the canary in the coal mine. Organic farming shows us that our systems and methods work best when they emulate nature and when we work against these natural systems we encounter devastating problems!

The top bar hive beekeeping system does some things that help us return to a more natural system of keeping bees … a way that promotes healthier bees by working with those systems, instead of against.

The primary feature of a top bar hive is that it permits the bees to make all their own natural wax, with no so-called “assistance” in the form of sheets of milled wax known as “foundation”. This is important for a three reasons: 

  • It allows bees to make the cells in the honeycomb in the size that is best for the purpose they will use it for. The size of each honeycomb cell figures into many of the workings of the hive – even down to the length of time it takes a worker honeybee to be born!
  • It allows bees to make the honeycombs themselves in the shape they prefer – a gentle curve known as a “catenary curve”.
  • It’s also important because, do you remember those pesticides we mentioned a minute ago, that have been used in beehives? Those chemicals are what we call “wax-soluble”. This means they dissolve into the bees’ wax honeycomb. And not only do bees live on this wax, but they store their honey in the wax comb cells, and they raise the baby bees there! So when those chemicals dissolve into the wax, they affect everything the bees do. Disconcertingly, these toxins also survive being melted down and re-milled into new foundation – so that even brand new foundation, just purchased, contains detectable levels of these poisons. We have made the inside of a beehive a chemical catch-all!

As with many agricultural things today, our attitude about honeybees needs to be re-calibrated — it needs to move away from treating bees as machines and return to letting nature take its course. We got pretty far off track in a pretty short time. So far off track that now it’s urgent – that we learn, or maybe we only need to remember — how to farm in ways that support honeybees.

Because we have got to shift this paradigm… and we think it’s possible that we are just in time. 

Originally printed in The Natural Farmer – a publication of NOFA – the Northeast Organic Farming Association.
(Photos:  Natural wax – Photo by Jimmy Fowler, Foundation wax in a frame – photo by Christy Hemenway)

Christy Hemenway

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