I was honored and humbled to be asked to write an article on bee-centric beekeeping for the Natural Bee Husbandry magazine. This is the magazine published by the Natural Beekeeping Trust, an organization whose mission I whole-heartedly support.
The magazine is excellent, and you can learn how to subscribe here:
Here's the full content of the article:
The Four Confluent Paths of a Bee-Centric Beekeeper
Scott Patrick Sailors
The truth is I'm a late bloomer when it comes to keeping bees. I most certainly did not discover beekeeping in my youth. And, when I finally did discover it, I was appalled and disappointed that I had not done so at an earlier age. "Think of all the additional years of beekeeping that I could have had!” I said to myself.
But then something happened that changed my attitude. Through the world of beekeeping I discovered the world of honey bees. And it has been my experience that those two worlds are not at all the same thing. If the world of beekeeping is interesting, then the world of honey bees is fascinating, beautiful, and wondrous beyond all imagining. Once I could see the bees themselves - which I could never have done in my youth - I quickly gave up the study of beekeeping and embraced the study, and the company, of honey bees. This is my story.
In my part of the world - a high mountain valley in the heart of the Rocky Mountains in central Colorado - I’m finding myself traveling four confluent paths as the bees teach me how to live in relationship with them in ways that bring health and wholeness to the bees, to the earth, to my fellow man, and to me. These four paths are my ongoing education in the stewardship of habitat, regional adaptation, practices, and the hive cavity.
Before I share my brief story, I want to be clear that whenever I communicate with other bee people, from commercial/migratory beekeepers to re-wilders, it is always my heart to set a tone of mutual exploration and discovery. In both my study and discussion of honey bees I want to be open-minded, open-hearted, and open-handed; and so I’m always keeping these two pearls of wisdom in mind:
“For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions, even on important subjects, which I once thought right but found to be otherwise.” Benjamin Franklin
“The only time I ever believed that I knew all there was to know about beekeeping was the first year I was keeping them. Every year since I’ve known less and less…”
Sue Hubbell, A Book of Bees
Let me share, then, a few quick glimpses of my story with you; four life-changing events that put me on these four confluent paths.
Confluent Path #1 - Habitat
A number of years ago something happened that changed me. Immediately. Profoundly. Permanently. I was sitting with a colony, sipping my tea, being still, and watching the foragers return to the hive. As I focused on their activity I noticed something horrific. The bees were flying back to the outside of the hive - they could still fly - but they were having extreme difficulty walking into the hive. Upon closer inspection I could see that their legs were not working correctly. I knew in an instant that they had encountered poison. It was incredibly heart-breaking and I’ll never forget it.
In that single moment in time I became a permaculturist... before I had ever even heard that word or knew what it meant. I immediately stopped using poisons of any kind on my property.
Within just a couple of years I was amazed at how much more healthy, prolific, and productive my property became. It was as if the earth celebrated and thanked me. Just two summers after I stopped poisoning the earth, I witnessed more growth in my trees, enjoyed more blooms on all of my plants, and saw more volunteer flowers than ever before.
I began studying the nutritional needs of honey bees, and have been working to create healthier pollinator habitat on that little portion of the earth over which I have influence. I’ve been planting diverse, nutrient-dense sources of forage that provide blooms over the entire length of the bees’ foraging season in my region.
My path of improved habitat includes:
- Continuing to eschew the use of poisons of any kind.
- Planting only native flowering plants that are suited to the hardiness zone of my valley.
- Planting flowering plants with a diversity of bloom times from April through October (the forage season in my region).
- Planting a variety of native flowering plants that bloom in each of those months.
- Purchasing plants that do not contain systemic pesticides.
- Continuing to study permaculture and employing those kinds of holistic, sustainable practices.
- Studying soil health; and what a fascinating voyage of discovery that is!
And, in my community, I'm trying to raise awareness of the need for improved pollinator habitat. I've joined several groups that are working on those kinds of initiatives. Thankfully, there are many permaculturists, orchardists, and organic gardeners and farmers in my valley. Of course, all of these efforts benefit native pollinators as well, and I've seen more native pollinators on my property this year than ever before.
Confluent Path #2 - Regional Adaptation
My very first year of beekeeping taught me a lesson that, while painful, was so helpful to me that I was, in the end, thankful for the pain.
My mentor that first year had been steeped in the mind-set and practices of the conventional/commercial beekeeping world for over thirty years. So, with such a mentor, I too started down that road. I bought a nucleus colony from a commercial beekeeper here in Colorado, and, in my ignorance, thought I was purchasing "Colorado bees." I took the nucleus home and installed it in a hive. Things went along well that first season, and having what we call an "Indian Summer" I was able to inspect the hive, for the last time that year, on October 16th. All looked well.
On January 6th, we had an unseasonably warm, bright and sunny, perfectly still day. I decided to take a peek inside the hive to see how their honey stores were holding out. Without going into all the details it was very clear that, sometime after October 16th, the colony had swarmed. And, of course, none of the new queens they raised were able to successfully mate that late in the year in my region. (And, I’m sure that the swarm that they cast was unable to put away any stores and survive the winter.)
I scratched my head over that one for several months until I happened to learn that the nucleus colony I had purchased the previous spring had been made up using a queen that was bred in Kona, Hawaii. That was a big “Aha” moment for me.
I am now a bee-centric honey bee steward with the goal of developing an ecotype. An ecotype is a genetically distinct geographic variety within a species, which is adapted to specific environmental conditions. My long-term goal is to steward a variety of honey bees (still Apis Mellifera) that can survive and thrive in my region - both in hosted hives and in the wild - and to eventually encourage them to swarm and become feral. (My county, which encompasses over a thousand square miles, is 80% wilderness and public lands.)
Not every bee-centric beekeeper lives in as wild a place as I do. But what if we were all to adopt the mind-set of stewarding honey bees in a way that would allow them to develop the ability to thrive in our own particular region - even to the point that a swarm could easily survive in the wild? For me, that is a core value of my bee-centric approach.
Confluent Path #3 - Practices
What if, deep inside every human being, there is an inner steward of the earth?
If that were true, then there might be some for whom that inner steward has always been conscious and engaged with the world. And, there might be others for whom, sadly, that inner steward remains dormant their entire lives. And then, there might be some like me for whom, later in life, that inner steward… wakes up.
And for me, when that happened, it changed everything. It certainly made a radical difference in how I view my relationship with, and my responsibility to and for, honey bees.
I believe that our worldview, whether we're conscious of it or not, informs everything we do. When it comes to beekeeping, a person's worldview may lead them to become a beekeeper who engages in what is commonly called conventional beekeeping. Or, perhaps, their worldview may lead them to become a honey bee steward who simply longs to understand the nature of the bees themselves and to help them to thrive in the world. Here is just one example of contrasting worldviews that could both form and inform our beekeeping practices:
There are some who believe that when we work with the earth's natural systems we create health and wholeness, and when we try and improve upon the earth's natural systems we invariably create disease. There are others who believe that mankind ultimately benefits if we start with the premise that we can improve upon nature, and then work to do so.
We've probably all known people who fall into one of these two camps. And it's easy to imagine how each of these worldviews could lead a person to choose a particular approach to beekeeping with its accompanying set of practices. For myself, the awakening of my inner steward of the earth began a transition from Conventional Hobbyist Beekeeper to Natural Hobbyist Beekeeper to Bee-Centric Beekeeper to Preservationist Beekeeper. And, I believe that it is probably inevitable that I will continue to move along the spectrum toward Relational Bee Person and then to Re-Wilder. But that’s just me. Where will/has your worldview led you in your relationship with honey bees?
"I was a beekeeper once, but the bees have forgiven it." Heidi Herrmann
“I long ago gave up a number of beekeeping practices conceived with the notion of making bees do certain things that seemed good from a human standpoint but which usually involved radically disrupting the hive. Instead, I watch the bees more, try to understand what they are doing, and then see if I can work in a way that will be in keeping with their biology and behavior. I try to create conditions that will make them happy, and then leave them alone as much as possible.” Sue Hubbell, A Book of Bees
"The bees know best what's best for the bees." Me
Confluent Path #4 - The Hive Cavity
A few months ago I read something that made me dance in the street and even do a few backflips! (Well, in my heart, at least.)
In the March, 2017, issue of American Bee Journal, Dr. Thomas Seeley, Professor of Biology in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, wrote an article titled Darwinian Beekeeping. Dr. Seeley has been studying honey bees in the wild for decades, and has written such landmark books as Honeybee Democracy and The Wisdom of the Hive.
In his article, Dr. Seeley contrasts the ways that honey bees live in the wild with what we've subjected them to [my words] with modern conventional/commercial beekeeping equipment and practices. He lists twenty differences, all of which, in my opinion, can be addressed and corrected through thoughtful bee-centric beekeeping practices, including a re-design of the hive cavity that we host our bees in, even if we happen to live in one of those regions of the world where we’re required, by law, to keep bees on removable frames.
Here is my summary of the contrasts specifically having to do with a colony's hive cavity:
- In the wild, colonies occupy small (approx. 1.5 cu. ft.) cavities, while in a Langstroth or National hive they occupy large (approx. 3 cu. ft.) cavities.
- In the wild, colonies live in a cavity that they have coated with propolis due to the cavity's rough surfaces, while in a Langstroth or National hive there is no such coating because the surfaces are smooth to start with.
- In the wild, the colony's cavity has thick walls (approx. 4+ inches), while in a Langstroth or National hive the cavity walls are thin (approx. 3/4").
- In the wild, the cavity has an entrance that is high and small (approx. 4 sq. in.), while in a Langstroth or National hive the entrance is low and large (approx. 12 sq. in.).
- In the wild, all of the thermal, hygroscopic, and ventilative qualities of the hive are maintained solely by the bees, while in a Langstroth or National hive they are often disrupted.
Why would these differences matter to a honey bee colony? I believe the answer can be found in a study of all the things that the colony is doing to control both the micro-climate and the micro-ecology of the hive as they strive to live in symbiotic relationship with over 8,000 other known organisms that share the hive with them.
Here is a short list of just some of the things that we know, or suspect, that honey bees are striving to manage inside their hive. I’m sure that you can think of more.
- Amount of ventilation and its route
- Ambient temperature of the hive
- Specific temperature of the brood
- Specific temperature of the queen in the winter cluster
- Relative humidity
- pH balance
- O2/CO2 balance (for inducing a state of torpor in the winter)
- Smoothness of surfaces
- Amount and location of propolis
- Structural integrity (sturdiness) of the hive
- Ratio of worker comb to drone comb
- The "historical memory" embedded in their natural comb
- Bee space between all surfaces
- Travel routes between combs
- Ability to remove dead bees and otherwise keep their hive clean
- Ability to guard their entrance
- Communication levels for both scent and vibration
- Antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal qualities
- Health and vitality of the queen
- Amount of stored honey and stored pollen
- Orientation of stores to the brood, and for winter cluster access, and for winter insulation
- Symbiotic relationship with 8,000+ other organisms
A review of this list makes it immediately apparent why a honey bee colony living in the wild would select a hive cavity with the characteristics that Dr. Seeley describes.
I am so thankful for Dr. Seeley's article. It was very timely for me. It confirmed many of the things that I was pondering regarding the life of a honey bee colony, and confirmed my efforts to develop a hive cavity that gives the bees an environment in which they can live much more closely to the way that they live in the wild, as well as giving them the control they need to better manage all of things in the list above. For me, this journey has led to the development of the Bee Tree Hive. All of my colonies are hosted in Bee Tree Hives, and live widely separated in my high mountain valley. I am blessed to live in a place that allows me to fully “practice what I preach.” And “practice” is precisely the right word.
And so here I am now, one who keeps company with honey bees; watching... listening... learning… letting the bees show me the way. And, thankfully, they are a patient guide and teacher.
My new friend, Heidi Hermann, recently said to me, “You are one of the ‘bee people.’ Bee people are very different from beekeepers, and my heart sings when I discover them.” What a compliment and an encouragement!
My great hope is that the bees will think the same of me… and that their hearts, too, will sing.
Additional Reading Resources:
Darwinian Beekeeping, Dr. Thomas Seeley, March 2017 issue of American Bee Journal
HONEY-MAKER - How the Honey Bee Worker Does What She Does, Rosanna L. Mattingly
http://www.beeuntoothers.com/NoBeeIsAnIsland.pdf (page 1)