The growing supports our honey-making friends in the kindest, most bee-centric ways, writes Rita de Brún.
Honeybees are wild, sociable, sensitive creatures. They soar in majestic swarms, mate on the wing and tiptoe on blossoms. To observe these glorious beings flit from flower to flower is a joy to behold.
Many of us dream of gently tending hives and being of service to their winged inhabitants. We know beekeeping has long been considered the preserve of bee-loving folk. Yet, while this may be true, the love doesn’t always manifest in respect for the nature and wellbeing of the bee.
Change is coming. Traditional beekeeping may become a thing of the past as greater awareness drives the natural beekeeping movement to spread.
Heidi Herrmann is co-founder and trustee at the Natural Beekeeping Trust — a UK-based charity that promotes bee-care that serves bees rather than beekeepers.
“We are beekeepers and hive-makers from around the world,” she says. “We collaborate closely to grow understanding of the bee and its essential need.”
Do bees need us to keep them?
Heidi has bees in her garden. But nobody could say she keeps them: “I never harvest honey. They live in skeps with no roof. They live in peace and come and go as they wish.”
She’s enamoured by bee swarms: “It’s central to the reproduction of the species. Efforts to control the swarm show a deep lack of insight into and respect for the superior wisdom of the honeybee colony.”
Because kindness is a factor, I asked one highly respected traditional Irish beekeeper if he’s kind to bees and he said he hopes so.
Does he clip the queen’s wing?: “I do. Swarms can cause a nuisance. Beekeepers need to manage swarming as best we can, rather than let bees cope for themselves. ”
I heartily disagree. Humans have played a large part in bees’ struggle to cope. When I suggest there’s nothing kind about mutilating a flying creature’s wing, he replies “Kindness is subjective. There are things we feel obliged to do for the common good. Things we do but might prefer not to do.” He smokes bees: ‘to gently move those on the frames edges, so as to minimise accidental squashing.’
Heidi Herrman’s pushing for change: “It’s time to stop the honeybee men in white suits with their smokers. We want everyone to help bees without taking anything from them. We’ve taken everything from them. We’ve poisoned most of the flowers, chopped down so many trees and stolen their honey.” She’s right on all levels. It takes 12 bees a lifetime to make just one teaspoon of honey. It’s hard, exhausting work. They make honey for the survival of the hive, not for us to grab.
Not all traditional beekeepers keep the same practices. Ken Norton, PRO of the Federation of Irish Beekeepers Associations, doesn’t clip wings or feed sugar to bees. As for taking honey, he says: “I’m not bothered. Usually I leave it there over the winter and if it’s still there in February I might take some of what the bees don’t need then.”
Herrmann says beekeepers who wing-clip do it for self-serving reasons: “Most offer some other explanation but usually they’re not as altruistically minded as they say.”
“Wing clipping is a no no,” says the inspirational Michiel Verspuij, who founded Boomtree Bees. “It’s done so if the queen wants to swarm she’ll fall to the ground from where the beekeeper can easily coax her back into the hive.”
Like Heidi, Michiel is working to change our relationship with bees. His mission is to help the conservation and rewilding of the honeybee by creating and providing suitable habitats for them across the country.
What does he teach in schools and on his beekeeping courses? “Don’t go near the bees. Supply their house. Sow loads of flowers so they’ve food. Don’t interfere with them.
“Many traditional beekeepers inspect weekly,” he says. “They pull the roof of the bees’ house and smoke them out, causing panic and upset.”
On the topic of beehives, he’s savvy. “They shouldn’t sit on the ground. That suits beekeepers, not bees. They like hives to be 4-6 metres above ground, away from predators and the moisture that brings disease, weakens comb and increases bee stress.”
Forcing bees to build comb in straight lines is another tradition that’s unnatural, according to Michiel. “Again it’s done for beekeepers’ convenience so they can remove it more easily.”
Like Heidi, he’s not in favour of beekeeping in the traditional sense: “Many traditional beekeepers perform manipulations and use hives I disapprove of. I don’t believe their ways are the way forward. But we do need to protect bees.”
He lives by his word: “I check on the bees only twice a year. I don’t harvest honey. All of my work is for conservation and setting up a sustainable population of honeybees. When my work’s done in Donegal, I’ll move and start all over again.”