Hello and welcome to my first ever bee-blog! I hope to share some of the wisdom gleaned from our travels meeting up with European beekeepers and bee conservation projects, in the hope of finding new ways to live more sustainably with our pollinators. This research trip would not have been possible without the generous help of the Churchill Travel Fellowship – thanks Winston!
At the beginning of my personal journey into the world of beekeeping I was bombarded with lessons in an intensive, wartime form of beekeeping – ‘conventional beekeeping’ which was presented as the norm. I was told ‘beehives could not be kept alive without the use of chemicals to control mites’, that to ‘allow’ bees to swarm was irresponsible which would result in bees not surviving the winter, importantly resulting in less honey for the beekeeper. It also seemed that replacing honey with sugar was normal. My first few experiences of beekeeping were subsequently horrible! I had an awful time of stress and worry – dominated by fear rather than awe at the beauty of the bees. My first hives were three thin national hives, all of which had been treated with miticide chemicals, had their honey taken from them, and they had been exposed to a summer of swarm control manipulations. Was this beekeeping? No wonder that when combined with pesticides and lack of habitat that our bees were suffering!
Surely, if bees have been on this planet for around 100 million years, they have the capacity to adapt – they have survived through many extinction phases where the environment has proven harsh. The queen bee mates with around 15 males (drones) to ensure maximum genetic diversity in her offspring, and hence why honeybees are so good at adapting. This adaptability does not magically stop with varroa; the host of parasites develop natural resistant over time, and by treating with chemicals, this stops the natural equilibrium from forming. We need to allow the bees to develop a resistance. Treating with miticide is simply putting a plaster on the problem, and is compromising the health of our pollinators.
With all of this in mind, surely from a beekeepers point of view, there was something I could do! Well… if I didn’t take too much of their honey, I didn’t fiddle around with them, I allowed them to reproduce (swarm) and I helped make their hive a little more like that of a natural tree cavity, then I wouldn’t need to put this god awful chemical stuff on them?! Bingo! Now this of course all sounds really simple and makes a lot of sense, but in the conventional beekeeping world, beekeepers lose their hats over the thought. Beekeepers love their bees and I think a lot of them genuinely think they are doing what is ‘best’. Beekeepers around the world have been fed a conventional type of beekeeping as gospel, and this, disgustingly, is linked to past (and present?!) relationships with agrochemical companies. If you teach a beekeeping method, which disrupts a colony to such an extent that it cannot survive without chemicals – hey presto, some big money can be made in the ‘solution’.
And this is why I’m writing this blog today, and why I’m out in Europe trying to find solutions. Not only was the impending pollination crisis buzzing in my ears night after night, but also the injustice to humanity as well as to nature caused by the lies and ensuing complicitness in this environmental and social destruction was too much to sit around and not do something about. I was also super annoyed at misinformed and stuck in the mud conventional beekeepers telling me that my bees would die without chemicals, that I was stupid, and where was my ‘proof’? Well here I am, gathering it, and also learning the best possible ways to ensure our bees are happy and healthy.
And so, our trip begins… One VW campervan head gasket blown, and we’re on our way to Dover in a possibly as dodgy converted ford transit – a quick last minute buy from a couple down in Easton. They were selling the big red ex disability minibus because their family was about to expand, and as they handed over the keys, the lady, sure enough, started going into labour. I did haggle a good fair bit on the price, so hopefully I didn’t have too much to do with this. I did sweeten the deal however with two lovely jars of honey from our bees, and the birth went smoothly (with thanks to the honey of course). So off we chugged to Dover, only to find our ferry was delayed by five hours due to strikes in France. Now I’m all for a good strike, but with a schedule like no other, this was not an option! Timmy worked his magic, and we were squeezed onto a ferry to Dunkirk. The ride was great – really calm seas, thank god, because my seasickness knows no bounds; I was once sick on a canoe in the lake District. Alas, in contrast to the beautiful journey, was the sight that enfolded, that was to be… Dunkirk. The ferry port was a scene of power stations, coal piles bigger than three story houses, and oil refineries. Hmmm…. This is why I’m on this trip – to try and make this a less frequent scene for the future generations that follow after me.
First stop – Eastern Poland for Tree Beekeeping!
…. (Via Bruge, Dusseldorf, North Germany, Berlin and Warsaw)
I had heard about a young lad in Poland called Piotr Piłasiewicz (www.bartnictwo.com) who was seemingly single-handedly bringing back the lost traditions of tree beekeeping in Poland. Up until the Second World War, Polish people have been clambering up trees, carving a small hollow into a living tree, and ‘beekeeping’ from within the natural habitat. A door is wedged in the front to keep the cavity closed and warm, a small entrance hole is made, and the hive is only opened twice a year – once in the spring to check if the cavity has been occupied by honeybees, and once in the autumn to harvest a small amount of honey (and only if there is enough). If the tree were to fall, that section would be cut out, and set back up high in a tree – then called a log hive. This beautiful example of living in real harmony with the trees and the bees, thrived until the evils of the second world war, when the majority of Polish tree beekeepers were killed. Also during this time, timber prices rocketed, and the huge trees which had served tree beekeeper families and bees for centuries, were felled. These trees were literally chopped down with the bees still within. With the falling of the last trees, the tradition was lost, and the last tree beekeeper in Poland died in 1969.
Tree beehive, Eastern Poland
Luckily, these traditions were documented at the 23rd hour by a park ranger, and published in a very rare book. This book, proudly shown to us by Piotr, is the tool that is allowing him to re-vive this tradition.Piotr has learnt the intricate ways to make his own rope and tree climbing equipment, how to carve the cavity, and even the climbing techniques employed (see picture – not easy!).
Piotr climbing a tree in a traditional polish tree beekeeper way
So what is so great about tree beekeeping? Well! The first whamey is that bees used to live naturally in trees. A cavity would be found by the scout bee, which was a good few meters off the ground (away from bears and humans etc) where the air was not damp, the size remained the same, and the wood of the tree was very thick. Thick wood is incredibly insulating, therefore the bees are easily able to maintain the hive at 36 degrees – the ideal temperature. Unnatural deviation from temperature can lead to brood problems and losses. In comparison, modern hives are made of very thin wood, and the heat loss is dramatic. Even worse, there is a strong held notion that bees need lots of ventilation and so open mesh floors were invented. The bees therefore struggle to keep warm and use lots of energy to maintain the desired temperature. Furthermore, the ideal temperature for varroa to thrive at is 34 degrees; so a ventilated hive, being opened often for swarm control etc, is actively encouraging the varroa mites.
Inside a beehive!
As the bees are so inaccessible, this dissuades the over-inquisitive beekeeper to keep poking around inside the hive. Either you need to climb a rather scarily tall ladder, or you need to learn to climb trees really really well (and then open the hive!). Every time you open a beehive, the delicate ecosystem is damaged. Bees communicate via chemicals – Is there enough honey? Has the queen been fed? There’s a mouse on the loose in brood box two… etc. You open this hive, and the chemicals are lost. Furthermore, my god, you then go and plonk chemicals inside the hive, and the bees are ‘lost’. They become stressed, directionless, and are not able to function properly or healthily.
Bottom of the hive floor; a natural ecosystem with ants and all sorts!
The hive floor was really interesting too. In conventional beekeeping, you are encouraged to keep the hive very clean! But in nature, the bees leave wax and detritus at the bottom of their hive, and in this creates an ecosystem, which provides homes for ants and creepy crawlies. Could ants and earwigs eat the varroa? Phil Chandler, a natural beekeeeper in the UK who uses top bar hives, often stuffs woodchip and all sorts of natural bits and bobs to encourage this ecosystem – creating an ‘eco floor’. Piotr has thirteen log and tree hives. He never treats for varroa, allows swarming, opens the hive twice and year, and only takes a tiny amount of honey if there is enough. With thirteen colonies, only two of these did not survive the winter. Piotr believes this is mainly down to a lack of forage. The Polish forests are predominantly pine monoculture. Although we did see a lot of undergrowth, the forests compared to that of a natural one, was very poor in biodiversity in terms of bee forage. Piotr also mentions something really interesting – that over time and successive brood rearing in the cells, the cells get smaller and smaller. And guess what? Varroa can’t breed as much in the naturally smaller cells! The wax foundation that is used in conventional beekeeping, the cells are made far bigger than are naturally made in order to encourage more honey storage. You are also advised to change the comb regularly, and I’ll also add that this wax is from millions of different colonies around the world, and contains within it many chemicals. Funny then, that when you keep changing the cells and keeping them big, in putting more chemicals into the ‘liver’ of the hive, that you get lots of varroa mites! We also spoke to a PHD student who has just started comparing log hives with conventional hives. The results have not been published yet and so we could not get a quote, but preliminary findings have shown that within the log hives, there is far greater antibacterial function, and 20% more compounds found within the honey. Could this be a factor that allows them to better fight and adapt with varroa? I really like tree beekeeping because it reminds and reconnects you to how bees are supposed to be, and gently encourages you to have to greater respect for them. We are pushing our bees too far, and they are responding by giving a very very clear message – that the current methods imposed on them, in combination with their compromised habitat, is causing their demise.
Me, carving a log hive! Oh how we tried to fit it into the van! No such luck!
On our way out of Poland, we met anther lovely young lad called Lucas who runs a large scale bee farm of over 100 hives … naturally! He is one of the few natural beekeepers out in Poland along with Peter, and has set up a project called ‘Free Bees’. Lucas uses 20 drops of thyme oil on a piece of cardboard if he thinks the varroa is getting too high, but only when he has to. Far better than chemicals in my books! Lucas is 27, and a firefighter. Funnily enough in Poland, when you have a swarm of bees in your garden, who do you call? A fireman! So this works out quite well for his bee business. Lucas uses Langstroth hives and allows them to swarm. Each year, he takes five to seven kilos of honey per hive, and feeds them with 10kg of sugar in the winter. His reasoning for this is that sugar is far more economical to feed them, compared to the price he can get for honey. Lucas’ hives also have open mesh floors, and for the majority of the year, he keeps the entrance block totally open. He does not insulate the hive in the winter (though the wood is a good three inches think) and he uses his own wax to shape foundation that has naturally smaller cells. I wonder, that if the bees were not having to use so much energy keeping warm with all that draught, and were left with more of their own honey and not fed the sugar, whether they would need that now and then thyme oil? I often wonder that if honey were priced more honestly then beekeepers might not push the bees so far, but then again if the price did go up, maybe it would encourage more to replace it with the cheap sugar substitute …. All of Lucas’ colonies were started as swarms, and I think this is one of the tricks of being successful in natural beekeeping. In my own personal experience, the hives I started with had been treated with chemicals, and when I stopped treating, the varroa rocketed and bees after one reason of another, did not survive. All colonies which started off as a swarm, survived. When the colony prepares to swarm, the queen stops laying. Varroa reproduce in the capped brood, and therefore the numbers are dramatically reduced. It’s a natural varroa control check. You ‘allow’ your bees to swarm and hey presto! And now we’re off to the Czech Republic to see what we can learn . . .