Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Ten reasons why the BBKA should not take Bayer's money

Several people have asked me why I think the BBKA should not take money from pesticide manufacturers in return for endorsing their products. That the question even needs to be asked seems to me a sad comment on the moral vacuum that many people inhabit these days, but here are some of the reasons that occur to me:

1. It is unnecessary. On the BBKA's own figures, the money from product endorsement could be replaced by a small increase in the annual membership fee - £1.00-£1.50 - depending on which BBKA document you read.

2. It is unethical. Do the Royal Horticultural Society endorse herbicides? Does the AA (the Automobile Association or Alcoholics Anonymous) endorse whisky? Do the Metropolitan Police endorse crack cocaine? Then why does the BBKA feel the need to endorse products that are toxic to bees?

3. It is unconstitutional. Nowhere in the BBKA Constitution can I find any passage that gives the executive the power to accept sponsorship money from corporations with a vested interest in selling compounds harmful to bees.

4. It damages their credibility. Do the BBKA expect to be taken seriously as advocates of bees and beekeeping, when a significant proportion of their income is derived from profit-seeking corporations with contrary aims?

5. It is against the stated objects of the BBKA. The BBKA constitution states: "The objects of the BBKA shall be: to promote and further the craft of beekeeping; to advance the education of the public in the importance of bees in the environment". Exactly how are either of these objects furthered by endorsing pesticides?

6. It is unprecedented. I know of no other beekeeping organization in the world that takes money for endorsing pesticides.

7. It makes the BBKA a laughing stock among other European beekeeping organizations, who have been campaigning for years against the use of pesticides that are toxic to bees, and which have killed billions of bees in France, Germany, Italy and elsewhere. The BBKA should be showing solidarity with our European colleagues, not spitting in their faces.

8. It is against the wishes of a significant number of UK beekeepers. If the feedback I have received is indicative of the proportion of beekeepers who have an opinion on this subject, then far more of them are against the idea than for it.

9. It creates a dangerous precedent. The BBKA are proposing to endose products based solely on the data supplied by the manufacturer, without any requirement for independent testing. Once they have shown themselves susceptible to product endorsement, and have become dependent on the income, it will be all too easy to put their stamp on more and more products, until they lose all vestiges of the credibility they once had.

10. Bayer - one of the most vilified and untrustworthy corporations on the planet - will gain far more from this exercise that the paltry few thousand pounds they are handing to the BBKA. Their single aim is to make a profit - the bigger the better - and they are doing it by selling ever-increasing quantities of products that have been proven to be deadly to bees and all other insects - with the BBKA symbol on the label.

I could go on, but if you are not convinced by now, I would be wasting my time.

But I will add one more question: why is the BBKA executive so very, very keen to accept Bayer's money?

They have suppressed discussion of this subject on their web forum (banning me in the process); they have censored beekeepers' comments from their own web site, once they realised that they were all opposed to their position (see for details); they have published endless propaganda on this subject in their newsletters; they have refused to print opposing points-of-view; the president, Tim Lovett, has personally canvassed his own Surrey branch with an outrageous piece of propaganda that reads as if it was written by Bayer's PR agency, making clumsy links between rejecting endorsement proposals and 'extremism'; the president and two of the technical committee have strong links to the pharmaceutical industry, while another member of the technical committee, Norman Carreck is a strong advocate of chemical agriculture who has publicly supported GM and described crop rotation as 'old-fashioned'.

I think there is more to this than the BBKA executive is admitting. What do you think?

Further reading:

Evidence That Pesticides Are Seriously Messing Up Our Honey Bees

Tell the BBKA to stop taking Bayer's dirty money

Dear Beekeeper,

As you are probably aware by now, the British Bee Keepers Association (BBKA) has an arrangement with certain pesticide manufacturers to endorse some of their products as 'bee friendly', despite the fact that they are known to be toxic to bees. They have also failed to make any statement condemning the now widespread use of neonicotinoid pesticides, despite the proven fact that they caused the death of millions of bees in Germany this year, and have done so in Italy and France since the turn of the century.

When making statements to the press, the BBKA seems very reluctant to even mention pesticides as a possible cause of problems to bees, despite massive European evidence to the contrary. BBKA secretary Mike Harris was quoted recently in the Yorkshire Post as saying "...Colony Collapse Disorder was caused by the varroa parasite. Pesticides were a separate problem..." (

Earlier in 2008, following the massive bee poisoning incident in Germany, quickly proven to have been caused by Bayer's neonicotinoid seed dressing Clothianidin, the BBKA published a statement about their endorsement of pesticides on their web site, claiming that they had the support of 'the overwhelming majority' of members. They provided an opportunity to comment on this statement and within a matter of a couple of days, 20 beekeepers posted comments condemning their policy as unethical. Their response was to remove the comments from their site, thus censoring their own members views. You can still read the original comments at another site set up for the purpose (not by the BBKA) here -

Many beekeepers consider that the BBKA's financial relationship with Bayer and Syngenta effectively prevents them from fulfilling their prime function as guardians of the interests of bees and beekeeping.

Now the BBKA appears to be planning to extend its endorsement of bee-killing pesticides, by becoming a rubber-stamping body for Bayer, with no requirement for independent testing - merely a review of the manufacturer's own data. You can read the full text of their proposals here

Considering that complete severance of financial ties to pesticide manufacturers could be replaced only a £1 increase in membership fees, it seems remarkable that a national body claiming to act in the best interests of its membership would compromise their integrity so readily and so cheaply.

Bayer is one of the most untrustworthy corporations on the planet, with a record that would shame the most hardened criminal (see their Wikipedia entry, just for starters), yet one of the oldest and once respected beekeepers' organizations thinks that 'taking their word for it' is an acceptable way to assess Bayer's toxic products.

We call upon all beekeepers to make their views on this subject known to the BBKA.

You can send them an email using this form

or perhaps you would like to send the BBKA president, Tim Lovett, a personal message? If so, here is his email address -

Tim Lovett, president of the BBKA, is also Chairman of the Surrey Bee Keepers Association, in which capacity he has circulated this piece of propaganda to his local members in an effort to ensure that his own branch don't cause him embarrassment by voting out the endorsement of pesticides at the next BBKA ADM. It could easily have been written by Bayer's PR team, and will be of interest to students of propaganda - particularly in the way it clumsily makes the connection between voting against pesticide endorsement and 'extremism'.

Friday, October 17, 2008

How To Make a Fortune From Killing Bees

Supposing that someone set you a challenge: your mission is to wipe out all honeybees on the planet, while simultaneously showing a profit running into billions of dollars.

The following is a fictitious interview with an uncharacteristically honest representative of the biotech industry, conducted some years ago.

Interviewer: Why would you want to wipe out bees?

Biotech executive: Because we want to introduce a range of genetically engineered crops, which do not require bees for pollination. We want to ensure that food demand moves towards the range of crops that we can engineer most easily - and most profitably - and away from those that are more technically difficult to manipulate and that actually don't need any form of GM. When large populations run short of their traditional crops, they will clamour for anything that can feed them - even our GM crops.

Interviewer: How would you achieve this aim without conservationists and farmers attacking you?

Biotech executive: Clearly, we will have to do it by stealth. Make it look like a 'natural disaster'.

Interviewer: What about making a profit - how would you do that?

Biotech executive: Easy. While managing the 'natural disaster', we make and sell an antidote for it - nothing too effective, of course - and make sure it is one that will not actually cure the problem, but exacerbate it over time.

Biotech executive: So, for example, we could enable and quietly encourage the spread of a parasitic mite to which honeybees will have no natural resistance. The mite is known to be susceptible to the widely available natural pesticide pyrethrum, which is derived from dried chrysanthemum flowers. Organic gardeners have long used crysanthemums as companion plants to keep nuisance insects away from certain crops, but it is far more profitable to synthesize the active ingredient and manufacture a 'hive treatment' that can be sold to beekeepers, supposedly to kill the mites.

At first, of course, it will do that, but farmers and beekeepers rarely follow instructions on labels, so we know ahead of time that many of them will leave the medication in the hive for months instead of weeks, resulting in extended, low-level doses that will inevitably result in the mites becoming immune to treatment over time. As it is lipophilic, the synthetic pyrethroid will be absorbed into the beeswax, ensuring another source of low-level exposure - and let's not forget that we are selling a lot of pyrethroid insecticides in spray form, that will further enhance the effect as bees bring traces of it back to their hives.

Over a period of years, we will be able to sell millions of dollars-worth of pyrethroid treatments to beekeepers at huge margins, as this stuff costs very little to manufacture. They will queue up to buy it at almost any price, as we will make sure that researchers who show an interest in different types of treatment are allocated to other projects. By the time they realize that, far from curing the problem, they have just been selecting for weak bees and pyrethroid-resistant mites, it will be almost too late.

Interviewer: Almost?

Biotech executive: We suspect that some bee strains may still be vigorous enough to overcome mite infestation, and we don't want to risk them becoming standard breeding stock, so we need another line of attack as well. We will engineer a virus - possibly several - that can be spread unwittingly by the big bee-breeders who supply most of the package bees sold to commercial beekeepers, especially in the USA. The effort to identify and find a treatment for these viruses will occupy most of the available resources for bee research - which, of course, we largely control through grants and subsidies. It will take them years to find an effective treatment. We have one ready of course, for when we need to offer them a 'final solution'.

Interviewer: And if that is not enough?

Biotech executive: Then we have our parallel plan: we use our influence over the governmental pesticide regulatory authorities to introduce our new range of pesticides, based on another naturally occurring - and cheap - ingredient: nicotine. We have them ready to go - we call them neonicotinoids - and they are really deadly. You would hardly believe what a microscopic amount of this stuff you need to kill insects! And the great thing about them is that they can be applied to seeds before planting, and they are taken up into the plant and any bug that so much as tastes the sap is dead within minutes. So we can correctly claim that we are reducing the application of sprayed insecticides - which makes us look 'greener' to the ignorant (and, by the way, our PR department has made us look greener than Greenpeace - those guys are so sneaky!) - while we wipe out several dozen species of insects right under their noses. Of course, a few bird species will have to go too, but we can blame that on 'global warming' or somesuch nonsense.

Interviewer: What plants will the neonicotinoids be used on?

Biotech executive: Well, of course, we will focus on the ones that bees go for - sunflowers, oilseed rape - and the ones with the biggest profits - maize, sugar beet and so on. I know bees don't really go for maize, but the neat thing is that it is planted in spring, just when bees are most focused on foraging, and we can make the seed coating in various colours that are attractive to bees. At a distance, they look just like flowers! And the coating is quite loose, so it reverts to dust, which they think is pollen. So any seed that doesn't get drilled properly - and there is always plenty - stays on the surface and goes on working for us!

Oh yes, I almost forgot - we know that vine weevil is quite a pest to gardeners, so we are putting neonicotinoids right into commercial compost and calling it 'vine weevil treatment' - without mentioning that it will also kill earthworms and just about everything else in the soil. And, of course, it will make its contribution to wiping out bees, too - especially in towns with public parks, golf courses and other places where local authorities want a cheap and easy way to manage pests.

Interviewer: How will you deal with protestors and detractors, who will see what you are really doing?

Biotech executive: We will do exactly as we have always done: ignore them! Do you know the history of this company? We have been doing exactly as we please for half a century. We own the best lawyers in town - they are easy pickings, we just pay them and they do as we say - and they can scare the bejeezuz out of any troublesome petty officials, pressure groups or whoever gets in our way. Every now and then we lose a case, but we are worth more in net terms than several small countries - compensation is just a tax-deductible expense, after all.


Of course, the above is just paranoid fantasy, and any resemblance to any biotech executive, living or dead, is entirely unlikely.

More on Neonicotinoids

Several people have asked me for more information about neonicotinoid pesticides and how to avoid them. Google will reveal extensive information on this topic, and to save you some time, I have compiled some of the more useful-looking material into a library - feel free to download anything from here.

A number of people have asked if they should use organically grown sugar. As a supporter of organic farming, I would love to say an unequivocal 'yes', but apart from the considerable extra cost, I have yet to see any really 'white' organic sugar - it always seems to have a slightly brown tinge, which may indicate the presence of residues that may cause digestive problems to the bees. I don't know the answer to this one, but when considering feed, we have to remember that we are trying to mimic nectar, which essentially comprises sucrose, glucose and fructose in varied proportions, plus a sprinkling of trace minerals. Refined, white cane sugar may be as close as we can get at reasonable cost.

Finally, consider this warning from a German beekeeper, in a statement to the Apimondia gathering in Freiburg. (Clothianidin is another neonicotinoid, closely related to Imidacloprid):

"In Germany clothianidin is used since 2004. It is used as seed protection for sugar beets and corn. As well as for fumigation of barns and stables. It accrues as decomposition product of other pesticides.

Already in some regions the concentration in the soil is that high, that bee­keeping is not possible any more in such regions. It's alarming that butter­flies, hoverflies, chrysopids and many other beneficial insects are eliminated or respectively almost eliminated."

Read the full text here.

There is a growing movement to have the neonicotinoids banned in the UK, as is the case in several other European countries. They are extremely dangerous to bees and all other insects, and thus the birds and other animals that rely on insects for food. I urge you to take this threat seriously: only by acting in unison can we counteract the massive financial vested interests behind the promotion of these poisons.

Saturday, October 11, 2008


I recently circulated a warning about possible Imidacloprid contamination in sugar beet, which many beekeepers feed to their bees. Since this has caused some discussion, I thought you may like to hear some facts that I discovered while checking the original story.

1. Imidacloprid is a neonicotinoid pesticide (i.e. similar in chemical structure to nicotine) now routinely used as a seed dressing on sugar beet - for up to two years in the UK, considerably longer in the USA and elsewhere.

2. Imidacloprid is a systemic insecticide, meaning that it permeates every cell of the plant, even if only used as a seed dressing. That means it WILL be present in the sugar, as processing does not affect it.

3. Imidacloprid is a powerful neurotoxin, lethal to bees in doses as small as five parts per billion, and has serious sub-lethal effects - including disorientation - at much lower doses. To put that in context, if you took ONE THOUSAND METRIC TONNES of 1:1 syrup made with beet sugar, and stirred in just ONE TEASPOONFUL of Imidacloprid, you would have a mixture capable of killing bees. Please read that last sentence again and think about it.

4. Imidacloprid is persistent in plant cells and in the soil (half-life in soil under aerobic conditions of up to 997 days), where it kills ALL insects - including beneficial ones - and it accumulates, season on season, until it reaches a 'stable' level, assumed by some authorities to be something like 10 parts per billion. It is also likely to contaminate ground water.

5. The US 'Environmental Protection Agency' has approved permitted levels of Imidacloprid in sugar beet of 0.05 parts per million - that is at least TEN TIMES the lethal dose for bees.

Do you still think it is safe to feed sugar beet syrup to your bees?

And where is the British Bee Keepers Association in all this? Still taking money from Bayer in return for endorsing some of their pesticides (not, so far, including neonicotinoids) as 'Bee Friendly'. Has the BBKA come out with a statement condemning the use of Imidacloprid, or the closely related Clothianidin, which killed nearly half a billion bees in Germany in May this year? Have they ever issued a statement supporting the German and French beekeepers' call for a ban on neonicotinoids? Has the BBKA ever criticised ANY of Bayer's products? All I have seen is a series of half-hearted, limp statements that defend the status quo.

However, please do not imagine that I am 'anti-BBKA'. I want the BBKA to be a strong campaigning body on behalf of bees and beekeepers, not a puppet of Bayer's marketing department. They should be free and independent of all commercial interests and should represent beekeepers, NOT chemical corporations that have no interest in the health of bees, other than the profit they may make from selling medications like Bayvarol (that ultimately make the Varroa problem worse by selecting for pyrethroid-resistant mites).

I urge all UK beekeepers to lobby the BBKA through their local branch to abandon their mute acceptance of 'cash for chemicals' from Bayer, Syngenta or any other company, and to to request that they make a clear statement supporting organic farming, which is the only safe option for bees.

Philip Chandler


1. The facts about Imidacloprid in this message have been checked by a microbiologist.

2. You can read more about Imidacloprid here:

3. You can read the EPA's document on Imidacloprid here:

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Sustaining the Bees

“Without husbandry, "soil science" too easily ignores the community of creatures that live in and from, that make and are made by, the soil. Similarly, "animal science" without husbandry forgets, almost as a requirement, the sympathy by which we recognize ourselves as
fellow creatures of the animals.” i

Wendell Berry

The big lesson of the 20th century was this: the way we treat the natural world has repercussions way beyond the immediately obvious. Our destruction of rainforests and other habitats in the name of 'progress' has triggered irrevocable, cumulative cycles of species loss, soil erosion and climate change that we are only beginning to understand and that will haunt us for generations.

From here, we can look back over the last 150 years and see how commercial beekeeping developed from the Victorian desire to dominate the natural world and subjugate its inhabitants to the will of man. This was the dominant paradigm throughout the first two thirds of the twentieth century, until we began to wake up to what was happening to the planet as a result of our arrogant assumption that we could treat it as a bottomless waste pit.

Some of us looked out at decimated forests, depleted soil and polluted water and realised that we had collectively to change our ways.

The subsequent - and now rapid - growth of the organic food movement indicates the beginnings of a shift in human perception, while the global dominance of a handful of agri-chemical corporations, intent on covering the earth with their genetically mutated organisms and chemical-dependent crops, represents the old order, stubbornly clinging to outmoded, reductionist science as their gospel and taking their moral guidance and business model from drug pushers.

So it is with the bees. Since L. L. Langstroth introduced us to the wonders of his movable-frame hive, we have assumed that we know better than they do what living conditions they require, what size cells they prefer to build, how many colonies can live in close proximity - and every other detail of their lives down to the mating of their queens, we have sought to bring under our control. And now we are reaping the rewards of our arrogance: bees that are dependant for their survival on chemical inputs and human interventions, and which abandon their hives in growing numbers.

Can this situation be reversed? Nobody can say for sure, but those of us who are experimenting with sustainable beekeeping systems believe that the answer lies in a low-tech, low-impact approach, that allows bees to build comb according to their own design, eliminating the artificial constraints imposed on them by the use of frames and foundation.

Foundation – thin sheets of wax impressed with the beginnings of hexagonal cells - was introduced as a way of 'helping' the bees; saving them some work and therefore redirecting their energy towards doing more work for us, i.e. making more honey. Because it is milled to what has been decreed is the 'correct' cell size for worker bees, then that is what the bees are more-or-less forced to build. Because the generally adopted cell size of worker foundation is 0.3-0.5mm larger than those that feral bees build un-aided, this has led to an overall increase in the size of the bees themselves, due to the fact that they grow to the capacity of the cells in which they pupate.

Larger bees were thought to be a good thing, as they would surely have longer probosces - enabling them to feed on formerly unreachable nectars - and a larger payload capacity for nectar and pollen. Unfortunately, enlargement appears also to have resulted in reduced flying efficiency, shorter lifespan and quite possibly an increased susceptibility to disease and parasites.

Proponents of 'small-cell' foundation claim that a significant decrease in the Varroaii population results from its use, due - it is suggested - to there being less space in the cells for them to reproduce, combined with a roughly one-day reduction in the worker bee emergence date compared with 'large-cell' bees. But this is still a step short of full 'naturalization'. The fact is that, given the choice, bees do not build uniform worker cells, but vary the size according to factors we can only guess at. Foundation or artificial comb - of whatever size - is part of the old control-freak, we-know-best paradigm that has caused their current problems. Having seen the beautifully formed, naturally constructed comb that bees build in skeps and in my top bar hives, I would not go back to frames and foundation if Thornes were giving them away.

Bees need to build comb. It is a part of their natural lifecycle and a part of their biochemical makeup to extrude wax and to work it, and they need the freedom to build it their way. If that means they raise 15% or 20% of their colony as drones, then so be it: that is what they need to do and we may never know the reason why, nor do we need to. Our pre-occupation with drone culling cannot but affect the quality of queens, as many of the most important traits are passed down the drone line, according to the late Brother Adam and others. It would not surprise me if the many stories of poor quality queens I have heard and read about recently were caused by a local shortage of good drones.

It seems to me that beekeeping – especially commercial beekeeping - is no longer sustainable in its present form. We need to re-think our management methods from top to bottom, or face an unprecedented decline in the health and strength of the bee population and the end of honey – at least in the public perception - as a pure, healthy food.

Intensive beekeeping – especially on a commercial scale - generates massive amounts of time- and energy-consuming work in return for a variable and unpredictable honey crop. Copious quantities of power and water are consumed in manufacturing, cleaning and sterilising equipment, rendering wax and cleaning up the inevitable, intractable, sticky mess. Transporting our kit around the countryside burns carbon fuels by the tankful. Substantial buildings are required for storing mountains of woodwork and housing decapping machines, extractors, boilers, tanks and all the myriad bits and pieces that inevitably accumulate around a beekeeping operation. Hives, frames, supers, feeders and covers are manufactured using power-hungry, saws and planes, while human time and energy is spent nailing together bits of wood, fitting foundation and reparing broken parts.

Meanwhile, 'scientific' chemical treatments have resulted in fitter parasites and tougher bacteria. We artificially maintain strains of bee that are ill-equipped to deal with infections or infestations, despite their ancestors having done so, unaided, for at least 100 million years. Some beekeepers routinely use potentially dangerous and illegal chemicals - including antibiotics and organo-phosphates - risking prosecution and loss of reputation, as well as their own and their customers' health, while making little or no long-term impact on the bees' problems. Many of these chemicals are lipophilic and persist in wax, which is recycled into foundation and imparts a low-level dose of a cocktail of who-knows-what to the next generation of bees.

All this might be understandable if the consistent outcome was bumper crops of honey and happy, healthy bees. However, honey crops will forever depend more on the weather than any other single factor and, as I write, our bees are suffering from unprecedented levels of infestation by the varroa mite and endemic infection by viruses for which mites are the most likely vector. Thanks to those who persist in shipping bees around the world instead of breeding from local stocks, the Small Hive Beetle and the Tropilelaps mite will most probably arrive in Britain soon. So-called Africanised bees may not be far behind.

In our modern, western world, where relatively few people have a day-to-day, intimate relationship with nature, public appreciation and understanding of the pivotal importance of the honeybee in the greater scheme of things has been largely lost. Bees are regarded by many as a pest rather than a vital, natural resource. A surprising number of people cannot tell a honeybee from a wasp, as many swarm catchers will testify. Our government would rather cover the countryside with untested, genetically modified crops than invest in truly sustainable, organic farming or fund research into bee diseases. Even our (British) beekeeping association takes money from agrichemical companies in return for their patronage of poisonous sprays and passive acceptance of GM crops.

In practical terms, sustainability may mean accepting lower honey production per colony in return for healthier bees. It may mean - at least in the short term - accepting heavier winter losses in return for improved vigour in surviving colonies. It almost certainly means increased vigilance in inspecting colonies and assessing desirable traits, which will mean that more beekeepers will need to educate themselves beyond a basic level in bee husbandry and breeding, and that can be no bad thing.

The remedy, as well as the blame, for the current parlous state of beekeeping lies with beekeepers themselves: nobody else knows enough or cares enough to take the necessary action. We need to share more information with each other and make more effort to educate the public, especially the next generation.

We may need to re-think much of what we now take for granted, even if it means discarding protocols we have regarded as holy writ for the last 150 years. We may have to think the unthinkable: that commercial-scale beekeeping is inherently unsustainable. After all, keeping 50 or 100 or more beehives in an area that nature might furnish with only one or two colonies is very like cramming 10,000 chickens into a battery farm and has similar implications for aberrant behaviour and spread of diseases.

I am now looking at beekeeping as more of a conservation and restoration project than a profitable sideline. Much as I love honey, I am more interested in breeding bees that can look after themselves. I don't know to what extent I will succeed, but in its first year, over 500 people have joined our online forum and by freely sharing information, we are developing a balanced system of beekeeping that is becoming genuinely sustainable.

A key test of intelligence is the ability to adapt one's behaviour according to feedback from the environment. The feedback from the bees right now is surely telling us to change our ways or lose them forever, and thereby risk sealing our own fate. We must look more closely at our complicity in the over-use of agricultural chemicals and find better ways to achieve our goal of a fair honey crop than the propagation of poisons. We must accept that synthesized treatments for mites and brood diseases are ultimately doomed to failure, as they inevitably create dependency. The real answer lies with the bees themselves. Our job is to provide them with the best possible conditions in which they can solve their own problems, as they have always done.

Philip Chandler

Philip Chandler is the author of 'The Barefoot Beekeeper'.

i From 'Renewing Husbandry', Orion magazine Sept/Oct 2005

iiVarroa destructor – a parasitic mite, now widespread throughout the beekeeping world

Friday, July 11, 2008

What is a 'Beemaster?'

A 'beemaster', we may reasonably suppose, is someone who has attained some degree of mastery over bees.

One on-line directory defines it simply as 'someone who keeps bees', which is like calling someone who can merely play chess a 'chess master'.

Aesop's Fable CLIV: The Bee Master

A thief came into a bee garden one day during the absense of the master, and robbed the hives. The owner soon after returned, and stood pausing, perplexed at how this theft had been effected. The bees, meantime, cam home, laden from the fields, and, missing their cobs, flew in angry swarms upon their master. "You are a company of senseless, ungrateful creatures," he said, "to let a stranger, who has rifled your hives, go away scathless, and to vent asll your rage on your master who is at this instant studying how he may repair your injuries and preserve you."

MORAL - People too often mistake their friends for their foes.

But where did this idea of 'mastery over bees' come from?

To me, it carries echoes of the passage in Genesis where man is given 'dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth'. This has been used ever since as an excuse to terrorize, exploit and wipe out a huge number of non-human species: the way things are going, the honeybee could be next in line for extinction.

The whole concept of 'mastery over bees' is absurd, as anyone who has kept them will surely testify.

If the term is to carry any meaning at all, it must indicate a certain level of skill in handling bees, and knowledge of their ways and habits.

Unfortunately, use of the term 'beemaster' more often indicates the owner of an inflated sense of self-importance, than it does the possessor of noteworthy skill. Those who call themselves 'beemasters' may be little more than self-promoters, keen to attract a crowd of admirers, but with little real substance.

So how do you tell a real beemaster from the fakes?

A real beemaster will never use the term for self-promotion: in fact, they will never call themselves a beemaster - or beemistress, even, because the one thing a real beemaster knows is that they know nothing. That is what bees really teach you: humility.

This creature, with a brain the size of a pinhead, can build its own home using only its own bodily secretions; feed itself and its brothers and sisters entirely on the products of wild flowers; store enough food to last it's yet-to-be-born kin through the coldest winter; navigate across miles of open countryside or townscape that it may only have seen once; communicate with the rest of the hive about the best sources of food; collect and deploy powerful, yet gentle and natural antiseptic medicines to fend off disease; and offer freely its own life in defence of its home and family.

The honeybee teaches humility: whether we are able to learn the lesson, is another matter.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Bayer's Pesticides and the British Beekeeping Association

About 10 years ago, I began to realize the importance of bees - and honeybees in particular - to our food chain and our ecosystems. (I am not belittling the importance of bumblebees, or the many other species of bees [around 2,500 in the UK] - but due to their sheer numbers per colony, honeybees have a special place.) Since then, I have immersed myself in bees and beekeeping, reading everything I could get my hands on, working for a year at Buckfast Abbey with the remaining stocks of Brother Adam's bees, studying his breeding methods and learning everything I could about how bees can best be supported. I wrote 'The Barefoot Beekeeper' in an attempt to express my urgent concerns and to present some possible alternatives to the 'factory farm' attitude of commercial beekeepers.

Now I see bees being decimated, in the USA, in France, in Germany, Slovenia, and lately in the UK. I also see companies like Bayer rolling out new pesticides - lately the neo-nicotinoids - and denying that they kill bees 'if used according to instructions' - and being found out in lie after lie about just how toxic their products are, not only to bees, but to just about anything that lives in the earth and in the rivers and seas. I see these corporations, with directors who cannot be held accountable for the incalculable damage they are doing, getting fatter each year on the profits they garner from ignorant users of domestic weed-killers and hard-pressed farmers alike, and I get very, very angry. I have learned - at last - to channel this anger into positive energy for campaigning for change, rather than to be exhausted by it, as used to be the case.

And then I find that the British Bee Keepers Association - the one body that should be protecting the interests of the bees - have been bought so cheaply by the corporation with the most heinous history of lying, deceit and shockingly inhuman behaviour... and my good intentions to remain calm and focused almost fail me.

These people have to be brought to book. There is no compromise: they will not stop until they have achieved their aim of total domination of the food chain - and they are not so far away from that right now. They have governments in their pocket, and their PR departments spend untold millions on propaganda to persuade us that they are doing the right thing for our futures. They are destroying what is left of this precious planet, a thousand hectares at a time, while people sit back and watch TV, unwilling to lift a finger.

The GM/pesticide industry (it is the same people) will now take every advantage of the currently rising prices of basic foods (they may well have engineered this too) to push their agenda hard. You will see articles in the press purporting to come from 'scientists' or politicians themselves, but in fact originating from the PR departments of Bayer and Monsanto, telling us how much we 'need' GM crops. They already have the UK government in their pocket and will use them as leverage on the EU. They know that they need to use the 'third world guilt' argument on the British public - ' may not need GM, but what about the starving in Africa...' which we know to be false, but they will wear down those who cannot think or see more widely than their daily tabloid.

Well, I may not be able, single-handedly, to stop Bayer in their tracks - I would be suffering from a grossly inflated ego if I entertained such a thought - but I do know that a relatively small number of well-informed, intelligent people, motivated by nothing more or less that a love for our planet, can turn them inside out.

So, don't tell me that this is 'internal politics'. This is an issue of the greatest possible importance: it is about PRINCIPLES - the foundation of our motivation, our actions, our campaigning. I suggest that IT IS A BASIC PRINCIPLE that the British Bee Keepers Association are violating in supporting the use of substances on our soil that are known to be toxic - not only to bees, but to a huge range of wildlife - and that they should be made to see that they are doing so.

PLEASE - do what you can: post comments at so they can be seen by anyone; join the BBKA forum (they have banned me, quel surprise!) at and tell the BBKA what you think. You will be banned too, no doubt, but at least they get to know that they are not being let off the hook!

Better still, take up beekeeping in a small way - it is easier and cheaper than you might imagine - and you will be doing your bit to create a gene pool from which survivors may emerge, capable of overcoming the problems we have imposed on them over the last 150 years or so. There are lots of people all over the world willing to help you start - see

Wholesome Honey Back On The Menu

Raw, untreated honey, served in the comb, used to be the norm – and many believe that this is the way honey should be eaten.

Better still, honey that is guaranteed to come from bees that have never had any synthetic chemicals in their hive is once more available under the label of the Wholesome Food Association, which has been promoting locally produced, chemical-free food since 1999.

WFA Managing Director, Sky McCain says, “We want people to be able to buy locally-grown, wholesome food from people they trust to do the job well. Local, certified organic honey is virtually impossible to buy in the UK – it is almost all imported – so we are pleased that in some areas we can now offer a locally-made honey that has been produced to our chemical-free standards.”

Raw, untreated honey is mostly produced by beekeepers who use 'top bar hives' – a low-tech, and often home-made hive that enables bees to build honeycomb to their own design, rather than to the pattern dictated by the pre-formed wax 'foundation' used in conventional hives.

Philip Chandler, author of 'The Barefoot Beekeeper', is pioneering this style of beekeeping in Britain. He comments, “Honeybees have been suffering for the last 150 years from the same sort of abuses as other factory-farmed animals. They have been badly housed, overworked, over-medicated and are now dying out as a result of this abuse and widespread poisoning of the land by pesticides. We want to sound the alarm now, before it is too late, and show how bees can be kept in a more natural way, without the need for chemicals to keep them alive.”

“We need much wider support to stop them being wiped out by agricultural chemicals, as has happened recently in Germany, and a few years ago in France.”

“We are disappointed that the British Bee Keepers Association, instead of protecting the interests of the bees, has taken money from the agri-chemical corporations for endorsing pesticides similar to those that have been killing bees by the million in Europe.”

“Beekeepers who follow chemical-free practices will welcome this initiative by the Wholesome Food Association and the public will, we hope, welcome the opportunity to be able to buy honey that is as pure as bees can make it.”


The top bar hive, mostly used in Africa before being introduced to Britain and the USA, is best suited to small-scale beekeeping, and so is particularly suitable for 'back yard', home beekeepers, smallholders and those wanting to produce enough honey for their family and friends.

Free plans for building a top bar hive, together with a popular support forum and more information about The Barefoot Beekeeper, can be found at

Membership of the Wholesome Food Association is open to anyone in Europe who grows and sells food to WFA standards and sells it in their local area – now including beekeepers. Details are on their web site at


Wholesome Food Association

The Barefoot Beekeeper


BBKA statement on pesticides

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Bees and Nanotechnology

It is a little-known fact that bees developed nano-technology several thousands of years ago.
They realized that there were difficult times ahead, and they had noticed that the prime predator on their planet had developed an interest in their honey stores. One particularly advanced race of honeybees decided that their best chance of survival was to enslave a number of these strange, giant bipeds by means of an hypnotic drug, containing self-replication nanobots, programmed to induce a chemical-dependant, highly-suggestible state in the ape-man's primitive brain.
After many experiments spanning about two thousand years, the correct result was obtained and the formula for the drug was perfected, synthesized and genetically engineered into their DNA, where it would be expressed in their venom. The nanobots took a little longer, but in time, they had them programmed and operational.
The first trials were on a Swiss man named Huber. An unfortunate side-effect was that he became blind, so further research was carried out at the bee-labs and a decision was made to focus on the clergy, as they were mostly well-educated and had a lot of time on their hands. They also had a vested interest in beeswax for their church candles.
Further tests were carried out with variable results, culminating in a mass injection of an American clergyman named Langstroth. At first, this was highly successful, as the reverend gentleman quickly became obsessed with the welfare of bees. Unfortunately, the Colonies Council (known to insiders as The Hive) had under-estimated the inventiveness of this apparently harmless priest, as he soon began work on a project that was to influence the development of the beehive in quite the wrong direction: he took Huber's frames, added lugs and put them in a box, so that he and his human friends could lift them in and out and cause, unknowingly, all kinds of havoc in the bees' sacred brood chambers.
Although the bees could - thanks to the hypnotic drug encapsulated in their venom - influence the behaviour of this alien species towards caring for their welfare to a high degree, the nanobots were, at that stage of their development, insufficiently powerful to properly steer the more intelligent humans with any real accuracy. They came close to it with a young German monk, named Brother Adam, who they directed to create a new race of bee - the Buckfast - which was really a product of The Hive's collective, superconscious mind.
The Buckfast Bee was a great success for a while, but because it was designed to be docile, it failed to inject enough humans to achieve critical mass - the point at which Buckies would take over the beekeeping world and have all injectable humans within its power.
Meanwhile, a rebel faction - thought to be a splinter group from the African contingent of The Hive - began their own project in Brazil, with the aim of creating a bee so uncontrollable by man that he would give up all attempts to subjugate and control the honeybee. The revolutionary leader of this group, one Che Guard-Bee, undertook a guerrilla war in Central America that soon overpowered the defenses of the biggest beekeeping nation on earth and the reputation of his armies struck fear into the hearts of people all across the southern states.
A peace-loving faction of The Hive, meanwhile, was developing a new nanobot that would operate in a less warlike manner. Its aim was subtly to filter ideas into the minds of humans , so that they would become more interested in the preservation of the bees than in robbing them. This bot became known as the TBH-bot, after its creator, Thomas Bee-Happy...

Friday, January 11, 2008

Beekeeping Simplified: discovering the top bar hive

Let me lay my cards on the table right away: I believe that beekeeping should be a small-scale, 'cottage industry', part-time occupation 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 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 or mechanical 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 once you have looked after a few hives for a season or two.

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 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 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 beekeepers' supplies catalogues in order to keep healthy, happy and productive bees.

None of it at all.

The sub-title of my book, The Barefoot Beekeeper, 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 describe is about as simple as beekeeping can get, while maintaining provision for occasional 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:

  • frames

  • foundation wax

  • supers

  • 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. You will find fully-illustrated instructions in my downloadable ebook called, 'How To Build a Top Bar Hive', obtainable free in several formats from my web site:

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 solely 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.