We managed to pick up a colony of bees a few weeks ago (literally pick up, in a box in the boot of the car!), which we've safely rehomed in an empty hive that had been kicking around the garden, wishfully thinking, for a couple of years.
We have no aspirations for honey this year - we will have done well to keep them alive through winter. (The colony is a swarmed one and only little. Bee colonies need to have enough bodies to collect food to store to keep them through the cold months and sadly I really don't think they're going to be able to do that). But honey or not, we wanted to inspect the hive and make sure things were going OK, especially after ferocious storms a week ago.
We chose a balmy evening to take a peep, checking the forecast to make sure there wasn't imminent rain or howling winds to unsettle them, and we donned suits, lit smokers, and traipsed back and forth up and down the garden with various bits of equipment we'd annoyingly forgotten to take along. Our colony didn't seem to have grown much, but it was alive and well and there was plenty of activity, which was enough for now, so we popped another 'super' box (the top box of a hive, where the honey will be stored) on top and shut the hive up.
There's a little slide out inspection board at the base of the hive, which is used to check for the present of a mite, Varroa, that can affect honey bees and in the case of weak or small colonies, see them off. Horrible creatures, they feed on the 'blood' of developing bees in the little honeycomb cells, either killing them or deforming them as they grow so that they die soon after emerging. Pulling out the board, we could see little tiny insects, too small to identify, but enough to make us resolve to check into options for remedying a possible problem.
Traditionally, Varroa is treated by putting a small plate of impregnated wax into the hive and leaving the bees to spread it amongst themselves. It has an active ingredient which kills the mites. I had a couple of treatment packs that had been given years ago, so we checked them out, reading the instructions, and googling around the subject of bee pest control.
Varroa is a funny creature. It used to be found only in Asian bees, which were largely unaffected by it. But it's crossed a species boundary, and is now present in European bee colonies, who are unable to defend themselves. It's thought that the weakened colonies that result from an infestation are then vulnerable to other diseases, and Varroa is now thought to be possibly responsible for 'Colony Collapse Disorder' and the rapid decline in bee numbers. Reading around therefore, there is a line of thought that instead of treating the disease, we should in fact be leaving survival in the hands of nature, so that resistant colonies are allowed to develop and swell in number, with lack of resistance literally dying out. Survival of the fittest; natural selection.
The instructions on the Varroa treatment pack proved quite terrifying. Not to be used when honey is flowing as it taints the taste, bees may respond by initially reducing their numbers (ie. dying), wear gloves, wash hands well afterwards etc etc. Not at all pleasant really, and not something we wanted to use with our bees. (It's gone back on the shelf).
This whole episode came on the back of a conversation with a commercial beekeeper earlier on in the day. I had excitedly told him about our colony, our plans to inspect it on the evening, our hopes that our first super was filled with honey and how we were going to add a second, but that we were leaving the first so the bees had food over winter. "Why?" he asked. "Take all the honey and feed them sugar water instead!"
This is conventional practice. Feeding bees in our cold climate is actually recommended, but I was quite staggered that he would take the same finely tuned, nutritionally rich, full of antibacterials and antifungals source that we prize so highly as humans, and replace it with sterile sugar water in its entirety, shipped from abroad and now blamed for a whole series of health problems in the developed world.
And so later that night, discussing these two episodes, the penny dropped. We are so quick to buy beautiful local honey, thinking it's the right thing and yet whilst there is a commercial side to it, it can fall prey to the same questionable practices as factory farmed meat and non-organic produce - taking all that is natural and good and replacing it with artificial and controlled to maximise profit. Of course this won't be the case with all beekeepers, but even with some following these ideas, maybe we start to understand a little more about why bees might be in decline.
This is not for us.
Our bees will keep all their honey over winter, certainly for this year (although we will probably supplement their feed) and we will leave them to build resistance to Varroa without subjecting them to chemical treatments. They may die; they may not, but we feel this is the right thing and will deal with the consequences. We're not about making money, not even about getting honey! But we are about increasing the pollination of our food crops and definitely about increasing the numbers of honey bees. Next year we will look at a more natural 'top bar' or Warre hive to replace our conventional and restrictive 'National' hives, and we will definitely be reading up more about natural beekeeping.
It's a voyage of discovery! And we have much to learn...
Treading Lightly is simple living, within your means and the means of the planet, and making a minimal impact on the Earth. Find out more here about Catherine, of Barefoot Solutions, does this from day to day.