Continuing with the discussion on what is wrong with modern beekeeping methods;
3) With the removable frames came the next fundamental change to beekeeping, foundation comb . This great step forward ensured the bees built their comb within the confines of the frame. There was no chance of them building cross comb making it difficult to remove the frames. In the quest forever more honey yield the foundation was impressed with the size of the cell that would encourage the bees to produce workers and reduce the number of drones. The cell size was also increased from the natural size the bees would construct in the hope they would produce larger and more productive bees.
Since that time the cell size has remained largely unchanged. With slight regional variations the cells are 10% to 15% larger than the bees would normally build. Coincidently in the wild Varroa prefers the large cell size of Drone brood so the larger size of worker cell foundation forces the bees to build is ideal for them (lucky old Varroa!)
The other main issue with using wax foundation is the transfer of chemicals and pesticides present in the wax, which can cause health issues with the bees.
If the bees are left to their own devices they build comb which is ideal for them and less than ideal for the Varroa. Of course their own wax will also be free of the build up from the pesticides and chemicals.
Personally I believe that allowing the bees to build their own comb is less stressful for them and they know best what size to build (Don’t forget they have had over 100 million years practice. Why do we as beekeepers feel we know better than they do?)
4) One additional thing the modern hive with removable frames facilitated was selective breeding. This in my humble opinion is the worst interference of them all. A strain of bee that has perfectly adapted to its environment is taken and bread with other strains of bee to produce a gentler more productive hybrid. The required traits are selected and bred for but what about the myriad unknowns. Is the new strain more susceptible to a particular disease, can it cope as well with the extremes of its environment? There are many questions that should have been asked and weren’t. The hybrids then mix with the native bees and millions of years of natural selection quite simply fly’s out the window.
Of course things can quickly get out of hand with unforeseen consequences the African hybrid bees are a case in point.
5) This leads nicely into my final point about what is wrong with ‘modern’ beekeeping, the import and export of bees and queens. The movement of bees by beekeepers around the globe brings with it the danger of diseases and pathogens native bees are not equipped to cope with. Varroa is a case in point. How long will it be before the Hive Beetle is found in Europe? Not long if modern beekeeping methods have anything to do with it!
Next: What Can Be Done To Put Things Right?
Well, from our point of view nothing is wrong with modern bee keeping methods. We can harvest a large amount of honey easily, manipulate the colonies, transport the hives and generally interfere with the bees with very little effort on our part.
We transport bees and queens all over the world, use selective breeding to produce better strains of bees (from our point of view) and manufacture chemicals and pesticides to prevent or cure diseases and pests that inflict our bees. Even the British Bee Keepers’ Association (BBKA) is sponsored by and endorses Bayer, a pesticide manufacturer!
So everything is wonderful? Well let’s look at it from the bee’s point of view.
I could probably fill a book here but I will try and keep it to the main points.
1) The design of the hive forces the bees to start at the bottom keeping their brood at the bottom then working upwards for storing their honey supplies. Supers are added above the brood box and as each one is filled another one is stacked on top. If the brood box becomes crowded then another can be stacked on top of it giving two brood boxes when the supers have been removed. Once the second brood box is added then the supers can be re-stacked on top.
The bee’s natural instinct is to build downwards moving the brood down as the hive expands then back-filling the old brood comb with the honey stores. They are also happy to build horizontally if they happen to make their nest in a fallen tree.
Their natural instinct to move down is the opposite to the beekeepers requirements!
2) A cornerstone of all modern hives is the removable frame. The frame enables the beekeeper to inspect the hive on a regular basis. It is recommended that the hive be inspected around every ten days or so during the spring/ summer to check every thing is OK. The beekeeper looks for signs of disease, correct laying patterns, healthy brood and queen, etc. The frames are also spaced to precise dimensions to enable the bees to move up and down the hive enabling them to fill the upper levels with honey.
So every ten days the bee’s nest is stripped apart by the well-meaning beekeeper. The precisely controlled temperature the bees maintain plus all the pheromone scents used to regulate the function of the hive are lost or diluted. With the precise spacing of the frames even lifting the box above can have the same effect.
The bees have had over 100,000,000 years practice and beekeepers feel the need to strip their nest apart every ten days to check they are doing things right??
I was reading a book the other day by an eminent beekeeper and he mentioned one of the things you have to look for during this inspection is laying workers. He goes on to add “..the queen has died or is unable to lay eggs possibly as a result of damage when manipulated by the beekeeper” So the beekeeper should be checking for something that is possibly caused by checking for it! Need I say more?
Next: What is Wrong With Modern Bee Keeping? Part Two
The news is always full of articles about global warming or pollution caused by oil spills excreta. Governments have conferences and disagreements about what can be done while in the background largely un-noticed a disaster of equal proportions is unfolding.
What am I talking about? The demise of the Honey Bee! (Check out my blog entry on where have all the Honey Bees gone?)
So why should the disappearance of such a humble insect be cause for concern? Well where do you think all the fruit we eat comes from? Figures from the USA are freely available on the net and speak for themselves.
The largest managed pollination event in the world is in California where nearly half (about one million hives) of the US honeybees are trucked to the almond orchards each spring. New York’s apple crop requires about 30,000 hives; Maine’s blueberry crop uses about 50,000 hives each year. Bees are also brought to commercial plantings of cucumbers, squash, melons, strawberries, and many other crops.
In the UK honeybee hives run by mostly amateur beekeepers -contribute around £165m a year to the economy by pollinating many fruits and vegetables.
In short – the disappearance of the bee would cause mass starvation and be an extinction level event for many plants and animals.
What has gone wrong? The bee probably evolved along with flowering plants in the Lower Cretaceous about 120 – 140 million years ago. The earliest evidence for the bee so far found is in 100 million year old amber.
The following is from a 2006 BBC News article.
Scientists have identified the oldest known bee, a 100 million-year-old specimen preserved in amber. The ancient insect, trapped in tree sap, is at least 35-45 million years older than any other known bee fossil. It appears to share features with both bees and wasps, and supports theories of bee evolution. Experts believe pollen-dependent bees arose from carnivorous wasp ancestors.
They survived the extinction of the dinosaurs, survived continental drift, climate change were around while our earliest ancestors were swinging in trees! How many diseases and parasites evolved to threaten them in that time? Probably many, and they survived them all until now!
So what has changed? The decline started with the invention of the modern hive by Langstroth in 1860. He lived in the Victorian period filled with the expansion of industrialisation. Beekeepers were keen to apply the same industrial methods to beekeeping. They measured their success by ever greater honey yields at a time when nature was something to be controlled. By controlling nature some advantages were gained. However a price is always paid when man pushes the boundary of the natural balance of nature. In beekeeping, much was lost when man-made systems replaced the bee’s natural brood nest.
Bees have lived with and provided us honey and wax for thousands of years. Strange they have suffered since man started to manipulate them on an industrial scale 150 years ago.
Next: What is Wrong With Modern Bee Keeping?
After some delay due to adverse weather I finally received my package of bees from Easybee products ltd.
I was told to watch their video on installing their bee package. Luckily for me I had also done a lot of research on the net and watched several different Youtube videos.
The Easybee instruction video says nothing about removing the plastic cover over the end of the queen cage to expose the fondant plug. They were also to my mind extremely rough with the package. They must have squashed several bees banging the box on the hive!
Watch the clip here.
After getting my bees home I prepared my hive by removing half of the bars. I then sprayed the bee package with syrup (50:50 sugar, water mix) and put it to one side. I made sure I had my bee brush and filled the feeder jar with more syrup then carried everything down to the hive.
I had to say I was a little nervous as I kitted up with my bee suit. I sprayed the package with more syrup then gingerly lifted the flap on the corex box so I could slide out the queen cage.
The bees were quite calm and only a few came out clinging to the queen cage. I checked her Majesty was alive after shaking off the clinging bees, removed the plastic cover covering the fondant plug and then wired the cage to the fourth bar from the end. I picked up the corex box and tapped it on the ground to ensure all the bees were in a heap on the bottom of the box.
I poured the bees into the hive. It is quite amazing they actually pour out of the box like lose sand. They started to crawl up the sides of the hive. I carefully brushed them aside so I could replace the topbars. Once all the bars were in position I slid the follower boards up against them closing the bees off. I opened only one entrance hole (The hive has three) so the bees can defend their new hive. I placed the feeder jar over the feeder block then replaced the roof and left them to it.
The package box I placed in front of the hive, as there was still a few bees clinging to it. I hoped they would find their way into the hive eventually. The feeder bottle in the package was almost empty so I just disposed of it. A couple of hours later I checked the corex box and found it to be empty. I cleaned the box and stored it away as it would be useful for holding swarms or as a temporary Nuc.
Three days later I lifted the hive roof and gently slid the topbars apart so I could remove the queen cage. The cage was empty, the bees had released Her Majesty. They had taken all the syrup so I refilled the jar and closed up the hive.
Yesterday the bees had been in the hive for ten days. The day was sunny and warm so I though I would take a peek and see how things were going. The bees had been coming and going every fine day and bringing back a lot of pollen so they definitely looked like they were going to stay.
I lifted the roof and moved the follower boards so I could look in without disturbing them. (a real advantage with a topbar hive) I was pleased to find they had been very busy!
I will wait another week before checking that the Queen is laying and there is capped brood in the comb