Conversation with a commercial beekeeper

I had an interesting chat with a commercial beekeeper recently. I don’t have his permission to use his name here, so he will remain anonymous.

It is no secret that I generally disapprove of commercial, industrial-scale beekeeping, on the same grounds that I dislike battery farming and sweatshops: neither animals nor people should be mistreated for profit, nor have their labour exploited without regard for their well-being.

I asked him about his attitude to the problem with Varroa mites. “The only long-term solution for varroa is for all beekeepers to do nothing for a year or two, and breed from the survivors,” he said. “But that isn’t going to happen.”

And this is the dilemma we all face: we know that doing nothing may be the answer, but that means allowing anything up to 100% of bees to die out: no commercial beekeeper can afford to do that, and, I think, many amateurs would refuse to do that.

I think we have to face the fact that we no longer live in a completely natural world. The degree of our interference in natural processes – by pollution, industrial agriculture, forest clearances, urbanization and so on – means that there is little out there that has escaped our touch. Add to that the spreading of disease and parasites as a function of our international trade, and you have an environment for bees that is no longer the one they evolved to fit.

As we, collectively as humans, are responsible for this situation, I suggest that we, collectively as beekeepers, have a responsibility to help the bees as best we can to provide the conditions that may extend the period in which they can learn to adapt to the ‘new world’ they – and we – find ourselves in.

And to me, that means using the most natural and least invasive techniques we can – but I don’t think we do nothing, because that is tantamount to abandoning them to the conditions we have placed them in.


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Bees, bees, bees…

Nowadays, my life seems to be full of bees.

I took up beekeeping in 2000, while the craft was in decline and the local beekeepers’ association was struggling for members. I took an early dislike to ‘modern’ beekeeping methods, which seemed to be mostly about maximizing honey production and ‘manipulating’ the bees. I wanted something simpler and closer to the bees’ own way of doing things, and discovered the top bar hive.

In 2007 I wrote The Barefoot Beekeeper, which, to my surprise, seems to have become a bit of a ‘cult’ book among what has been recently dubbed the ‘natural beekeeping movement’.

The title for the book came to me in a flash one morning in bed, and I knew immediately that it was perfect. The construction method for my version of the top bar hive had arrived in exactly the same way, and I have lived long enough and made enough mistakes to know when an idea is absolutely right without hesitation.

‘Natural beekeeping’ is, of course, an oxymoron, but it does encapsulate an aspiration to work more closely with the bees, and to get rid of all the clutter that has accumulated around beekeeping since Langstroth peddled his new-fangled ‘movable frame’ hive around the USA in the middle of the 19th century. The term was adopted at a meeting I attended, along with a number of other interested parties, which was hosted by Bees for Development in Monmouth, Wales, in July 2009. Some of us went on to launch a not-for-profit (or charity, as we Brits call it) named Friends of the Bees.

About the time I published The Barefoot Beekeeper, I set up a site with a forum devoted to ‘natural beekeeping‘.  This has become the ‘go to’ site for anyone wanting to know more about this style of beekeeping, largely because of the calibre of people who have been willing freely to give of their time and energy to making it a place worth visiting. I have to give a special mention to Norman Weston, who was with me from the beginning and was co-admin through the growth period, when many difficult decisions had to be made.

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Having been meaning to start a ‘personal’ blog for some time, I thought I would delve into the mysteries of WordPress. I could have used any number of blogging platforms, but WP does have a head-and-shoulders lead in terms of reputation and usability, so I have swallowed my preference for ‘hand-made HTML’ and opened the box.

Alongside this, I made a WP installation for a new site for my book Secrets of Self-Empowerment, which has also been on the back-burner for a number of years, waiting for me to revise and refine it. The book has actually gone through a number of drafts and several titles before I settled on this one. I think I’m happy with it now, at last.

‘Secrets’ was created during a period of change and self-discovery, when I was working with a stream of people who were referred to me by the Employment Service (UK government department) for help in building their self-confidence, prior to returning to work. Many of these people had been the victims of industrial accidents or illnesses not necessarily related to their work, and many of them found it difficult to think of themselves as worthwhile, competent and employable.

I ran the training agency – RETRAC (REhabilitation, TRaining and Counselling) – until the EA made it impossible for any small business like mine to comply with their draconian contract conditions. I enjoyed this work more than anything else I have done before or since, with the possible exception of teaching people how to overcome a fear of public speaking, which I plan to resume soon.

‘Speaking For Yourself’ events are really a logical extension of Secrets of Self-Empowerment and the RETRAC work, and are designed to take people to the next level of self-confidence, way above what most people would consider ‘average’. Fear of public speaking is reportedly the #1 fear for most Americans, and, I would imagine, most Brits. Many people put ‘fear of public speaking’ ahead of ‘fear of death’ – which is to say, they would rather die than speak in public!

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