Sunday, May 27, 2007

Why do you want to keep bees?

(extract from The Barefoot Beekeeper by P J Chandler)

If your main concern is to obtain maximum amounts of honey from your hives, regardless of all other considerations, then you are reading the wrong book. Not that this style of beekeeping cannot produce decent amounts of honey – it certainly can – but the emphasis here is on sustainability and keeping healthy bees rather than setting records for honey crops, which inevitably has a cost.

The essence of sustainability is to work well within the limits of a natural system: pushing any living thing beyond its natural capacity can only lead to trouble.

Let me lay my cards on the table right away: I believe that beekeeping should be a small-scale, 'cottage industry' or hobby and should be carried out in the spirit of respect and appreciation for the bees and the part they play in our agriculture and in nature. I disapprove of large-scale, commercial beekeeping because it inevitably leads to a 'factory farming' mentality in the way bees are treated, handled and robbed and a lack of consideration of its effects on biodiversity.

Bees evolved to live in colonies distributed across the land according to the availability of food. Forcing 30, 50, 100 or more colonies to share the territory that, perhaps half a dozen or fewer would naturally occupy is bound to lead to concentrations of diseases and parasites that could not otherwise occur and that can only be dealt with by means of chemical interventions, which, I and many others believe, weaken the bees' natural defenses.

Bees love to feed on a multiplicity of flowers, as can be easily demonstrated by the variety of different pollens they will collect if sited in a wild place with diverse flora. Transporting them to a position where there is only a single crop of, say, oilseed rape within reach prevents them from exercising their desire for diversity and causes an unnatural concentration within the hive of a single pollen, which is most likely lacking in some of the elements they require for full health. Yet migratory beekeeping is practised in just this way on an industrial scale in some countries, especially the USA.

From a conservation point of view, unnaturally large concentrations of honeybees can also threaten the existence of other important and, in places, endangered pollinating insects, such as bumble bees and the many other species that benefit both wild and cultivated plants.

Sustainable beekeeping is small-scale by definition. It is 'backyard beekeeping' by people who want to have a few hives at the bottom of their garden, on their roof (there are a surprising number of roof-top beekeepers in our cities) or in their own or a neighbour's field or orchard.

Probably you want to produce modest quantities of honey for your family and friends, with maybe a surplus to sell at the gate or in the local market. You will have by-products; most obviously beeswax, which you can make into useful stuff like candles, skin creams, wood polish and leather treatments, so beekeeping could become the core of a profitable sideline.

And you are interested in bees for their own sake, I hope. If not yet, I have no doubt that you will be soon.
You may have been to an open day hosted by your local beekeeping association, or read a book or two, or perhaps you have taken the plunge already and bought a second-hand WBC or National hive and captured a swarm or obtained a 'nuc'1. You may have browsed through the catalogues of beekeeping suppliers, wondering at the enormous number of specialized gadgets and pieces of equipment you seem to need and wondering where you would put it all and how you would pay for it.

In this case, you will be truly thankful to know that my mission throughout this book is to show you that, (a) beekeeping does not have to be as complicated as some would make it out to be and (b) you need none of the stuff in those glossy catalogues in order to keep healthy, happy and productive bees.

None of it at all.

You will recall that the sub-title of this book is 'A simple, sustainable approach to small-scale beekeeping' and that is what I have in mind throughout and I would like you to keep in mind: simple, sustainable, small-scale.
The system I will describe here is about as simple as beekeeping can get, while maintaining provision for inspections, comfortable over-wintering and non-destructive harvesting. Everything you need is in one box – the beehive – which you can make yourself if you follow my instructions. You can buy or make yourself a veil. If you are nervous, you could even get a beekeeper's suit or a smock, but any light-coloured shirt will do as well. A hive tool can be handy, but a strong, sharp, flat-bladed knife will also work.

Some of the things you will not need include:
foundation wax
centrifugal extractor
bottling equipment
de-capping knife and tray
bee escapes
mouse guards
queen excluders
fancy feeders
space suits
bee blower

and you probably won't need gloves or a smoker, but if you already use them, or are nervous of bees, then by all means use them if they help you to feel more confident.

What you will need is a hive – probably two or three or more in time – and I will show you how to build them cheaply and easily, using only hand tools if you prefer, with only rudimentary woodworking skills.

Bees are fascinating creatures and among the many beekeepers I know or have talked to – even commercial men - I can't think of any who keep them just for the income they generate.

So be warned: if you start keeping bees and develop a real interest in them, it will be with you for life. And I doubt very much that you will regret it for a moment.

The Barefoot Beekeeper is available from

The free supplement, 'How to Build a Top Bar Hive' is available from the same site.