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Whats Wrong With Modern Intensive Beekeeping Practices

Bees on black plastic frames

Can you remember a time when bees weren’t in the news? Where have they gone? What’s happened and what has caused this alarming decline in the bee population worldwide?

The beekeeping industry is incredibly important to New Zealand. $5.1 billion of NZ’s economy is attributable to pollination by honeybees, domestic honey sales and export sales, cosmetics, beeswax and exported honeybees.

If you are a honeybee in New Zealand, there is roughly a 99% chance that you live in a commercial operation. This means you are managed like a commodity for pollination and honey production.

  • You live in a hive that could be made with toxic plastic.
  • You are forced to live in a square-shaped frame rather than a natural curved shape like bees build in the wild.
  • Your Queen is ‘caged’ in the lower section of the hive.
  • Your Queen is squashed and killed each year and replaced, often with an artificially inseminated Queen. This artificially bred Queen can lack vitality and often the colony is thrown into chaos in an effort to accept her.
  • Routine re queening prevents swarming and keeps the hive at its maximum production as it is headed by a young queen. When one company supplies the queen cells for an operation this can decrease the genetic diversity of the bee population as these 200 ( or often much more) queen cells comes from one breeder and one strain of bee genetics. Genetic diversity is imperative in any natural systems success.
  • The frames you are forced to live in can contain contaminated wax, or plastic. This is because of constant reuse and the use of toxic chemicals used to kill varroa. This is where you are expected to live, work and raise your babies.
  • Pre-formed foundation wax is placed in the hives, forcing you to build comb to the beekeeper’s requirements rather than your own.
  • Each year your colony is prevented from swarming, thus preventing your species from multiplying and helping to increase its genetic diversity.
  • Your hive is often lumped with 30 other hives in the same area. This leads to competition for the available food resources of the area, worker bees drifting and getting lost, robbing of weaker hives by stronger bees and the spread of bee diseases. In the wild bees travel a great distance from their parent hive before they set up a new colony so as not to cause competition for resources.
  • The majority of your honey is stolen each season and you are fed white sugar to sustain you until the flowers start blooming again in late Spring.
  • Toxic chemical treatments are often added to your home to treat many diseases that have been introduced from poor beekeeping practices.
  • Your colony is trucked around the region and forced to pollinate crops. With some crops, such as Kiwifruit, your hive is placed in the middle of a mono crop, so you are forced to feed off this crop even though it is not nutritious for you.
  • The drones (males) in your hive are often culled or prevented from being formed, as they provide nothing to the commercial beekeeper.

Reading this, does it make you feel that the honeybee is no better off than the battery hen or the pig in the sow stall?

The ‘Langstroth hive’ (the stacked boxes) we are all familiar with have been designed for maximum ease of use by the commercial beekeeper for high production and fast extraction of honey, but with little thought on how the bee would prefer to live.

Clearly there is an important role for commercial beekeepers until the natural order is restored and there are enough bees to do the job naturally. I believe there needs to be encouragement for more people, particularly backyard beekeepers, to keep bees in a more sustainable and natural way.

Naturally drawn comb full of capped honey from a top bar hive

Naturally drawn comb full of capped honey from a top bar hive

 

Natural comb honey

Natural comb honey

Clean comb without a toxic chemical load.

Clean comb without a toxic chemical load.

Around the world there has been a huge resurgence in amateur beekeeping, particularly in urban areas. Research shows that honeybees do better in an urban environment as they have more year-round access to nectar and pollen than their rural sisters. Beehives are now kept on apartment balconies, back gardens, and rooftops in the major cities of the world.

Me with one of my urban hives.

Me with one of my urban hives.

Along with the growth in hobby beekeepers there is a growing movement for sustainable beekeeping. This alternative approach emphasises small scale, low cost and low technology, using locally adapted bee populations and simple equipment. These alternative methods of keeping bees result in a lower honey harvest, but a stronger and healthier bee population. New Zealand needs healthy bees to pollinate our crops.

A sustainable beekeeper allows bees to emulate how they have lived for tens of thousands of years, before humans started to meddle with them. One method of sustainable beekeeping is using a Top Bar Hive. This is how I keep my bees in my urban backyard in Havelock North.

The Top Bar Hive allows  many management techniques which are more bee focused and sustainable easier but these can be also done in many of the other hive designs such as Langstroths and Warre hives. Bee focused beekeeping is a paradigm shift away from the large industrialised scale of commercial beekeeping.

One of my Top Bar Hives in my urban garden.

One of my Top Bar Hives in my urban garden.

A Top Bar Hive and bee focused beekeeping practices allows:

  • Bees to build their own natural comb to their own particular dimensions.
  • The hive can be opened and checked quickly for health without having to disturb the whole nest area. In a Langstroth hive when the boxes are removed the whole hive is opened and the important hive temperature, humidity and hive scent is disrupted.
  • The Queen is allowed to move freely throughout the colony.
  • Honey is left for the bees, with only superfluous being removed for our use.
  • Drones are allowed to develop to spread the colonies genetic makeup. Drones are important for the vitality of the hive.
  • Queens remain for as long as the colony needs them.
  • Disturbance of the colony is kept to a minimum.
  • Older wax comb is naturally cycled out of the hive during  homey production encouraging the bees to replace with new fresh comb.
  • I choose to use natural organic methods of varroa control. This takes more time but does not have the negative effect of building up to high levels in the wax. I don’t want my colonies living in a toxic wasteland nor do I want to consume honey which has been harvested from this sort of wax. Organic treatments using naturally occurring natural acids. These treatments have a very short half life so do not build up in the wax. Research has also shown that varroa mites do not build up a resistance to these acids which unfortunately they now have to many chemical treatments.
  • soft swarm control measures such as spring splits and artificial swarming can easily be carried out as appropriate to prevent uncontrolled swarming.
  • The hives are very sustainable and eco friendly as they can be constructed out of scrap timber as they do not require precision woodworking machines to make.
Top Bar Hive workshop

Top Bar Hive workshop

Similar to organic farming, sustainable beekeeping uses practices that respect the needs of the bees and the surrounding environment. It is about working with the bees rather than against them. As with many things in the primary production sector, our attitude about honeybees desperately needs to be re-calibrated. We need to stop treating bees as production units and return to working with them.

I am proudly biased towards these sorts of hives and this sort of sustainable and bee focused beekeeping (rather than honey/ money focused). I would love to see a network of educated and supported hobby beekeepers keeping healthy bees in a more sustainable, legal and small scale way. I believe such beekeepers will play a pivotal role in helping to reverse the decline in honeybees, and creating and maintaining vigorous, naturally-bred healthy local bee populations.

If you are interested in a more natural way to keep bees come and attend one of my workshops and visit www.saveourbees.org.nz

Happy bees and a happy beekeeper.

Happy bees and a happy beekeeper.

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