Text of a talk presented at the Spring Convention of the British Bee Keepers Association, April 15 2011
Some speakers begin with a foreword; I shall begin with a forewarning: this talk may offend some people.
It will offend creationists, who choose to ignore the evidence for evolution; it will offend fundamentalists, who believe that the only purpose of the so-called 'lower forms of life' is to serve mankind; it will offend those who believe that the Reverend Langstroth was revealing God's word when he designed his movable frame hive; and it will offend those who choose to ignore the paradigm shift that is occurring today among people who have woken up to the damage being done to our planet by the corporations that seek to own it.
The title of this talk - What Is Wrong With Modern Beekeeping? - begs a question: is there something wrong with modern beekeeping?
My contention is that there is indeed much that is wrong with it, and that the root of the problem lies in the anthropocentric, pre-Darwinian belief that we are in charge: that humankind has a God-given right to dominion over all other forms of life, and that animals – including bees – were created purely to serve us.
'Modern' beekeeping can be said to have begun in the year 1852 – the year that Langstroth patented his hive. He did so, it should be noted, with the express purpose of making the commercial exploitation of bees a practical possibility.
1852 was also the year that Langstroth published his book, The Hive and the Honeybee, in which we find the following passage:
“The Creator intended the bee for the comfort of man, as truly as he did the horse or the cow.
The honey bee was... created not merely with the ability to store up its delicious nectar for its own use, but with certain properties which fitted it to be domesticated, and to labor for man, and without which, he would no more have been able to subject it to his control, than to make a useful beast of burden of a lion or a tiger.”
Which is to say that, according to this creed, not only were bees created in order to provide us with something sweet, but that they were allocated 'certain properties' that enable us to domesticate them. In those days, most people shared Langstroth's belief that 'The Creator intended the bee for the comfort of man' and that its purpose was to 'labor for man'.
And yet, unbeknown to the Reverend Langstroth, some twenty years earlier, a little ship had set sail from Plymouth harbour on a five-year voyage that was to change our understanding of the world forever. That ship was The Beagle, and just seven years after Langstroth completed his book, Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species.
That was over 150 years ago. And yet, even today, despite Darwin's insights having been tested over and over by science; despite overwhelming evidence that all life is interdependent; despite irrefutable proof of the consequences of worldwide destruction of habitat and the poisoning of our life-giving soil by profit-driven corporations; despite all that, we see people still behaving as if they had God-given dominion over life on earth.
And what of so-called 'modern beekeeping'? Has it fully embraced the post-Darwinian world? Or does it still operate from that old testament, fundamentalist paradigm? Are we – as appears to be the case - still teaching people how to 'manage' and 'control' bees, when we should be teaching them how to observe, listen to and work with the bees?
We know that honeybees are finely adapted to their environment, from having evolved closely - over many millions of years – alongside the flowering plants on which they depend.
We know that the plants themselves depend on bees and other insects for pollination, and we know that the well-being of our planet and all life upon it depends on a healthy soil, nurturing a flourishing, diverse range of plants, which feed insects, then birds and fish, then mammals, carnivores and ultimately ourselves.
We know all that. And yet we have allowed our agricultural system to fall into the hands of those whose only concern is their own profit, and who care nothing for soil health or biodiversity. Their only concern is for increased sales of soil-destroying artificial fertilizers, herbicides that poison our water and insecticides that kill an entire sector of the food chain, including - and most importantly - our bees.
Here's what an American writer and beekeeper, Kirk Webster, said in 2006:
“All of American agriculture is suffering terribly now from trying to force a process based on the workings of Nature into an industrial and business model. The ability to produce quality food has been abandoned in the quest to grow ever larger quantities of cheap, low quality commodities from our vast resources of soil and water. Because human health depends very largely on having continuous access to quality food, almost all Americans are suffering as a result of this process.“
And it's not just Americans.
We can no longer pretend that the old, pre-Darwinian paradigm has any validity: we do not have - and we never have had - dominion over life on earth. Only a fool would leave a species like ours in charge of a planet.
We are only a part of life on earth, far less numerous than some, and yet we are by far the most destructive species ever to have lived here and we show little sign of reforming any time soon.
What is worse is that we seem to be incapable - as a species - of learning from our mistakes. Few people would say that war is a civilized way of settling disputes, and yet there has never been a time in recorded history when some part of the human race has not been at war with some other part. And most of those wars were and are based on differences of religious belief, with absolutely no hard evidence to back up either side.
In a similar way, we have bought into the corporate notion that we are somehow 'at war with nature', and that any living thing - be it plant or insect - that appears to stand in the way of the efficient production of shiny, cheap and tasteless supermarket food must be the enemy and therefore must be controlled and, if possible, eliminated.
The passage I quoted earlier from Langstroth's The Hive and the Honeybee illuminates the exact point in history when the Old Testament doctrine that 'bees are subject to our will' was cemented into beekeeping lore.
And there it remains to this day as a pervasive, if largely unstated belief. It finds expression in the teaching programmes of bee keepers' associations, where there is an underlying presumption that the only acceptable reason for keeping bees is the production of the maximum quantity of honey.
Roger Morse, in his 'Complete Guide To Beekeeping', flatly states that, 'The goal in beekeeping should be honey production...' and that 'Only a beekeeper who produces as much honey as possible thoroughly understands bees, beekeeping and bee biology.'
This attitude of nature-dominating, production-driven beekeeping is the legacy of Langstroth and his disciples that continues to be preached to this day.
It sees a bee colony as a mere commodity for making profit; the hive as a machine for making honey, rather than the home of the bees. It regards weekly disturbance of the colony, and the addition of toxic chemicals as normal.
It regards the bees merely as units of production, that are expendable and that can be killed, replaced, traded, or transported at will.
It pays little heed to the needs of other local species or the local ecology, while being responsible for importing of varroa, viruses, nosema and a host of pathogens and parasites from around the world.
Thus, the typical response by 'old hands' to new beekeepers, who express shock at the considerable investment in new equipment required of them: “You can always recoup your investment by selling honey!”
And so the innocent beginner becomes locked into the 'bee-farming' mentality, and what was once in their mind to become an engaging hobby, turns instantly into a small business, with a profit-and-loss account and bees now regarded as stock with a monetary value, instead of wild creatures fleetingly in our care.
That commercial exploitation of bees has played a large part in the problems we now face is clear, but that does not necessarily mean that all commercial beekeeping activity is destructive.
I recently had a conversation with a beekeeper, who, with one other man, runs 1500 hives. His principles include minimal interference, minimal mite treatment and little movement of hives. He does not inspect every 8 days looking for queen cells, nor does he import artificially inseminated queens: he has, over many years, created the conditions for the bees to interbreed and create an ecotype that is adapted to his local conditions. I know of another commercial beekeeper in another part of the country who operates in a very similar way.
This methodology has a lot in common with post-modern, 'natural beekeeping' philosophy, guided by a principle, which I hold to be self-evident, that bees know best what is good for them and that our job is to listen, to watch and to follow their lead.
Contrast this with the teachings of the disciples of Langstroth, who insist that they know best when a queen should be replaced, which strain of bee she should be replaced with, and what size cells she should be allowed to lay into. And then they wonder why their honeybees appear to suffer from parasites, 'mystery disappearances' and diseases that were virtually unknown before the advent of the movable-frame hive, re-cycled wax foundation and chemical medications.
Of course, beekeepers are not entirely to blame for the ills of bees: much of the responsibility for the mess we now find ourselves in must be laid squarely at the door of the agri-chemical industry, whi began by selling to farmers the weapons of chemical warfare left over from the First World War, and ever since have systematically poisoned our agricultural land, our water supplies and our wild places, deriving massive profits from peddling their toxic wares, while infiltrating and disabling all attempts to regulate their activities.
If proof were needed of the fatal power of human greed over rational, long-term thinking, one would not need to look further than the corporate entities of Monsanto, Bayer, BASF, Syngenta and their like to find it.
Nevertheless, beekeepers must accept their share of the blame for perpetuating the notion that all ills can be cured using the right 'magic bullet' treatment, be it prophylactic antibiotics, pyrethroid miticides or pollen substitutes. No sooner does a disease appear, than beekeepers are reaching for the latest bottle of medicine, with little thought for the possible long-term consequences.
Contrary to what we are often told, bee diseases made a serious impact as a direct result of the proliferation of intensive, commercial beekeeping, during the half century following the introduction of Langstroth's hive.
Here's what the American beekeeper C P Dadant wrote in 1920:
"If anyone had asked us, twenty years ago, how much trouble might be expected from bee-diseases, we should probably have shrugged our shoulders and answered that they were very insignificant and hardly worthy of notice. For forty years after we began beekeeping the only disease we saw in the apiary was diarrhoea... from which the bees suffered more or less after a protracted winter, especially when their food was not of the best... Foul brood, in either of its two forms was entirely unknown to us. In 1903 the writer had to go as far away as Colorado to be able to see some rare samples of it... It was not until the spring of 1908 that we found it among our bees..."
Just a few years later in 1928, this explanation of the sudden increase in bee diseases was offered by a British beekeeper, A Gilman, in his book 'Practical Bee Breeding'
"...disease is an expression of lowered vitality ...and simultaneously with increased fecundity there has been an extraordinary increase of disease. Their connection may be denied, but when we find a similar occurrence taking place with other livestock which we know to have been pushed for super-production, we consider the matter far more than a mere coincidence."
He goes on:
"...the increase of diseases has occurred principally in those countries where modern methods of breeding have prevailed. In America, brood diseases became so devastating as to call for legislation... on the continent of Europe, apiarists have been troubled with Nosema disease...
we had Isle of Wight disease, which so decimated apiaries all over the country that we had to resort to foreign bees for re-stocking purposes."
Gilman went on to draw this conclusion about 'modern beekeeping':
"...the only conclusion to which one can come, is that the principles on which the whole structure of modern apiculture are based must be at fault, in either one or more important directions."
Many years later, when the Varroa mite appeared in Europe as a direct result of the international bee trade, the treatment of choice was a synthetic pyrethroid, to which, in just a few years, the mites inevitably and entirely predictably developed immunity. Our interventions, combined with the effects of (BBKA-endorsed) pyrethroids concurrently being applied to farmland, actually created the conditions in which the mite could quickly evolve resistance to treatment.
As a direct consequence of this short-term 'magic-bullet' thinking, we now have mites that are substantially more difficult to kill.
So, how might we go about putting things right?
Firstly, we need to look at our underlying attitudes to bees.
Rather than seeking to dominate and control them, we need to respect them: after all, they have been around for many millions of years longer than we have.
We need to acknowledge that here are other legitimate reasons for keeping bees, apart from a desire to extract the maximum yield of honey from them. They are intrinsically valuable, simply for their part in nature. Many people want to keep a hive or two just to have them around, and have no desire to rob them of their honey.
Bees have evolved alongside the flowering plants and have become intimately adapted to them, as the plants have to the bees. We cannot think of bees as separate from plants: they are part of each other and they depend on each other for their very existence.
What we do to flowering plants, we do to bees. If we poison the plants, we poison the bees. If we coat the seeds of our food crops with toxins - such as Bayer's Clothianidin - and those toxins are taken up by plants to become part of their reproductive system, then we are certainly poisoning the bees and all other insects that come into contact with those plants. Not only that, but these systemic insecticides remain in the soil for many years, killing beneficial insects along with the so-called pests. They are taken up by other plants, including those decorative wild flower borders sown around crop fields by well-meaning farmers who think they are helping the bees. Wild flowers will take up the same toxic chemicals and will become lethal to bees in just the same way.
Dr. Jeff Pettis, research leader at the USDA-ARS Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, USA, spoke to Members of Parliament in April 2011 about the subject of threats to bees, saying:
“The reason I am conducting research on the neonicotinoid group is that they have a new route of exposure to bees, through pollen and nectar, and I continue to be concerned about their potential negative impacts on pollinators.”
He also said that it wasn't just one factor that was responsible for the decline in bee health:
“I think there's more of what I call the 3-P principle – poor nutrition, pesticides and pathogens. Those three things are interacting greatly. Nutrition is the foundation of good bee health, and certainly there's some pesticide exposure going on, but it varies widely over time and space. And the pathogens in my opinion are often acting secondarily. But it's the interaction of these three. You get three of them lined up then surely you'll have bees in poor health. Even the combination of any two could be problematic.”
So, poor nutrition, pesticides and pathogens: the first two of those three are tied to modern, chemical agriculture: poor nutrition being a consequence of monocultured crops and the consequent reduction in biodiversity.
The damaging effects of pathogens are likely to be exacerbated by poor nutrition and pesticides combining forces to weaken the bees' immune systems.
Pathogens are also transported around the world by the international bee trade. Banning all imports of bees into the UK would go some way towards stopping this locally, but we have to recognize that viruses are already everywhere, waiting for their opportunity to grow and spread. While we support toxic agriculture, we are making it easier for them to do so.
We urgently need to radically reform our agricultural system, so that it is not dependent on artificial fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides.
The BBKA should be supporting the organic movement, which is working to develop efficient systems of food production without the use of toxic chemicals. Instead, they have chosen to side with the pesticide industry.
A charity that claims to have the interests of bees and beekeeping at heart should never put itself in a position where it is under the influence of businesses whose purpose is to sell insecticides that kill bees. It is the equivalent of a cancer research charity being controlled by a tobacco company, or a brewery sponsoring Alcoholics Anonymous.
Secondly, amateurs should not be forced to mimic professionals.
When a newcomer turns up at her first bee keepers' association meeting, with the innocent notion that she wishes to keep a couple of hives at the bottom of her garden, she should not be forced to invest hundreds of pounds in hives and equipment that was designed for commercial beekeeping, and that may be too heavy for her to lift when full of bees and honey. Neither should the justification for such expense on ludicrously unsuitable kit be justified by telling her that she needs to become business-minded and sell her honey in order to pay for it.
And in case you think I am being disingenuous in using the feminine gender to make my case, I can tell you that every single course I ran during 2010 had a majority of female participants, and one was comprised entirely of women. When I started beekeeping at the turn of the century, female beekeepers were a rarity, and women's roles at beekeeping meetings were largely restricted to serving tea and cakes.
Beekeeping has been a male preserve for too long, in my opinion, and it is time that women were welcomed back. They were the first victims of the Langstroth hegemony: there were plenty of women in beekeeping in the days of skeps, and the top bar hive is now making it possible for them to return. I have had numerous emails from women thanking me for introducing them to a system of beekeeping that does not require them to lift 50-pound boxes.
We need to consider other types of hive for use by back-garden beekeepers: Nationals and Langstroths do not suit everyone.
Thirdly, we need to look at modern beehives and beekeeping practices from the point of view of our bees.
The Langstroth hive and all of its imitations, including the British National hive, make it relatively easy for beekeepers to interfere with bees and shuffle their combs like a deck of cards, but they do little or nothing to support the natural lives of the bees.
Hive walls are absurdly thin, and do little to help bees regulate their temperature while being easily penetrated by woodpeckers. Honey supers and brood boxes, when full are heavier than most people can safely lift, resulting in back pain and hernias – commonplace among commercial beekeepers. Frames are fragile, prone to being glued together by propolis, and create useful hiding places for the wax moth, while bearing almost no resemblance to the shape that bees choose to build their natural combs. Drones are suppressed by the use of uniform, over-sized foundation, which is recycled along with the toxins it accumulates from pesticides applied both inside and outside the hive. Queens are routinely imported, artificially inseminated, marked, clipped and replaced.
Brood combs are re-used too many times, contributing to the recurrence of disease; swarm cells are hacked out unthinkingly; medications and pest treatments are tossed in more-or-less at a whim.
All these practices are routine even among experienced beekeepers and are often taught as gospel to beginners. They all derive from the same attitude: we know better than the bees.
All these practices need to be examined and questioned: there should be no sacred cows in beekeeping.
There is a strong and growing movement in this country towards more 'natural' beekeeping, which the BBKA has so far failed to acknowledge, presumably in the hope that it will just go away.
'Natural beekeepers' use no synthetic chemicals in their hives and follow less invasive practices. They put the welfare of their bees above honey production targets, and only take honey when the bees can easily spare it. They use hives that help the bees conserve heat, and open them infrequently. They observe, they listen, and they act sparingly and with care.
Natural beekeepers may not yet have all the answers to the welfare of bees, but at least they are asking the right questions.
As I see it, our main job as bee keepers, or bee guardians, or bee herders, or whatever we choose to call ourselves, is to to be observant and to understand our bees to the best of our ability. We cannot fully enter into their world, but we have the opportunity to gain a greater appreciation of it.
And once we begin to understand how intimately embedded they are in the natural world, and what sensitive indicators they are of disturbances therein, we may begin to develop a deep appreciation of the interconnectedness of all living things. And that leads us inevitably to the conclusion that we have a responsibility towards – not only the bees – but towards everything that walks on the earth and flies in the air and shares this precious planet with us.
So yes – I think there is a great deal wrong with modern beekeeping. Much of it can be put right before it is too late, but it will require long-term, strategic thinking and inspired leadership. Sadly, I see little evidence of either among our politicians or the current beekeeping priesthood.
But I do have faith in the next generation of beekeepers: those who have come to the craft motivated by a passion for nature and an instinctive recognition of what is good for the long-term. They know what needs to be done, and I believe they will do it.
They may take their inspiration from Bolivia, which is set to pass a law granting all of nature equal rights to humans. According to a newspaper report, “The Law of Mother Earth redefines the country's rich mineral deposits as "blessings" and is expected to lead to radical new conservation and social measures to reduce pollution and control industry.
[Bolivia] will establish 11 new rights for nature. They include: the right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered.”
Vice-President Alvaro García Linera is quoted as saying, "It makes world history. Earth is the mother of all. It establishes a new relationship between man and nature, the harmony of which must be preserved as a guarantee of its regeneration."
That is the kind of thinking we need more of, right now, in politics and in beekeeping.