Friday, June 19, 2009

Towards More Natural Beekeeping

Historically, we began our relationship with bees when somebody discovered that the taste of honey was worth the pain it cost to harvest. We became honey-hunters, and while there were few of us and many of them, this was sustainable. When somebody discovered that it was possible to offer shelter to honeybees while they made their honey, and then kill them off to raid their stores, we became bee keepers, and while there were few bee keepers and many honeybees, that too was sustainable.

Then someone invented a clever way to house bees that did not require them to be killed, but instead allowed people to manage and control them to some extent, arranging things so as to trick them into producing more honey for their masters than for themselves, and we became bee farmers. And that was sustainable for a while because there were still many of them and although there were also many of us, we could manipulate their reproduction so as to make more of them as we needed. Then it became clear that we had gone too far, for some people began to find that their bees began to suffer from diseases that had been virtually unknown during the old days, and that they now had to be given medicines in order to keep them from dying. And because a whole industry had grown up around the farming of these bees, and there was a lot of money at stake, bee keepers were slow to change their ways and many could not do so for fear of bankruptcy, and so the health of the honeybees became worse and they became subject to parasites and viruses that had never troubled them in the past.

Meanwhile, we forgot how to grow food in the way that we once had done because we were no longer inclined to labour in the fields, and instead devised clever ways to make the soil support more crops. We poured fertilizers onto our fields and killed off inconvenient creatures with pesticides. This was never sustainable, and never can be: we are constantly withdrawing more than we deposit.

And that is where we find ourselves today, and this is the problem we face: bees that have become weakened through exploitation and a toxic agricultural system, allied to the expectation of continuous economic growth.

As 'natural beekeepers', our most pressing work is to restore bees to their original, healthy state. We need to think of ourselves as 'keepers' in the sense of 'nurturing and supporting' rather than 'enslaving', which is the old way. We must seek to protect and conserve the honeybee by working within their natural capacity, and not constantly urge them towards ever greater production. We must challenge the whole agricultural and economic system that has caused us to arrive at this point, because without change at that level, the future for both us and the bees is bleak.

We can make a start by establishing new and more natural ways of working with bees: neither we nor they have any need of unnatural 'treatments' with synthetic antibiotics, fungicides or miticides. We don't need to operate 'honey factories' – we can content ourselves with providing accommodation for bees in return for whatever they can afford to give us. In some years, this may be nothing at all, while in others there may be an abundant harvest. Such is nature: bees depend on honey for their survival; we do not. If the price of returning bees to a state of natural, robust health is a little less honey on our toast, is it not a worthwhile sacrifice?

1 comment:

cottage garden farmer said...

This makes so much sense to me, and fits in with everything I've come to learn about growing, cooking and eating - I've never really been happy with the "combative" style of beekeeping that I was taught, I hope I will be able to learn a better way from your book and web site. Many thanks Kathy Doyle

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