I went on a natural beekeeping course at one of my favourite places, Embercombe, recently and this really struck home. The bees have been around since the first pollinated plants, around 200 million years ago, and we’ve been around for about a million. And yet we feel we have both the right and the understanding to interfere with the bees natural way of living. And, as many of you know, they’re struggling. So, what have we done to ‘help’ the bees?
Well, because our native bees didn’t produce enough honey, we fixed that by importing foreign bees. They produced more honey, but struggled with the mixed weather we experience in this country and also brought in diseases that our local bees couldn’t cope with. To ‘support’ their bees against these challenges commercial beekeepers use pesticides, fungicides and other chemical treatments which involve regularly entering and affecting the natural activity of the hive. Not to mention killing the queen larvae to get the royal jelly, stopping the natural process of swarming and preventing male drones from being born – because, hey, they eat honey and they don’t serve any purpose, do they? (except that we don’t fully know what role they play, so that’s a bit of a risky strategy) . We ask bees to pollinate key commercial crops and then spray insecticides all over those very same crops. And finally we take away their natural food – honey – and replace it with sugar syrup.
Now I’m no expert, but I know that insecticides are designed to kill insects (which means bees), and that there’s a hell of a lot more nutrition in honey than in sugar syrup. And if I was an exotic Italian or Australian bee exposed to poisons and only being fed sugar syrup I’d certainly need a lot of propping up to survive a cold and damp British winter.
Bees lived, quite happily and successfully, for millions of years without needing anything to be fixed. It’s only once we started trying to manage them – in order to harvest more honey – that there’s been a problem.
So what can we do? Well, I’ve bought my last ever jar of commercially farmed honey, and I’ve set up a natural topbar beehive in my garden (picture to the left). I’ll do my best to simply provide a good home for bees, and let them get on with what they do without interference or ‘help’ from me. If we’re all really lucky they will build up their resilience and help create a new generation of native bees that can manage both the UK weather and the foreign diseases and pesticide risks facing them. If I’m very fortunate they’ll provide me with a few jars of honey each year. Can I accept that gift and not get greedy? Can I accept that they know how to look after themselves better than I do, and not get too involved in ‘helping’ them?
It’s a test for us all. Can we always take a moment, step back and ask – does what I’m trying to fix really need fixing? Or would doing nothing be an even better solution?