Is Beekeeping Wrong?

Listen to this article. On a hot, pollen-dazed morning this summer, I stopped by the house of Gareth John, a retired agricultural ecologist, who lives on a quiet lane above a river in Oxfordshire, to take a look at his bees. In British beekeeping circles, John, who has a white beard and a sprightly, didactic

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On a hot, pollen-dazed morning this summer, I stopped by the house of Gareth John, a retired agricultural ecologist, who lives on a quiet lane above a river in Oxfordshire, to take a look at his bees. In British beekeeping circles, John, who has a white beard and a sprightly, didactic manner, is well known as a “natural beekeeper,” although he acknowledged right off the bat that this was a problematic term. “It’s an oxymoron, right?” he said. John cares for perhaps half a million bees, but he does not think of himself as keeping anything. “I wouldn’t call myself a dog-keeper,” he said. “But I have a dog.” Natural beekeepers are the radical dissenters of apiculture. They believe that mainstream beekeeping—like most human-centered interactions with the natural world—has lost its way. There is another path, but it requires the unlearning and dismantling of almost two centuries of bee husbandry and its related institutions. During my visit, John asked me not to disclose his exact location, because his hives fell off the radar of the National Bee Unit, a government agency that monitors honeybee health, about a decade ago, and he prefers it that way.

John grew up in the English countryside in the sixties and seventies, when beekeeping was—as he remembers it—a gentle, live-and-let-live pastime: men in veils pottering around a few hives under the apple trees, jars of honey for sale at the garden gate. “It was very, very leave-alone,” he said. “Natural.” When John returned to the craft, in the early two-thousands, he was shocked by what it had become. In 1992, an ectoparasitic mite called Varroa destructor, which had jumped from an Asian honeybee to the Western one sometime in the fifties, emerged in Britain and killed untold millions of bees. Thousands of hobbyist beekeepers gave up. (Varroa reached the U.S. in 1987, and wrought similar devastation.) There was an atmosphere of vigilance and doom. Bee researchers talked about the “Four P’s”—parasites, pathogens, poor nutrition, and pesticides—as if they were the horsemen of the Apocalypse. The British Beekeeping Association, which has served as the custodian of the craft since the late nineteenth century, ran courses on pest control. “Fear,” John said. “Disease. Disease. Disease.” He watched fellow-beekeepers treat their bees with miticides, to control varroa; import more prolific queens, and other non-native bees from southern Europe, to boost honey production; and feed their hives syrup to get them through the winter. “It had become this agro-industrial monster, where you were supposed to behave as if you had a high-yielding Holstein dairy cow,” he recalled.

It didn’t feel right. As a species, the Western honeybee (Apis mellifera) is millions of years old. (It was introduced to North America by European settlers in the sixteen-twenties.) Although people have harvested its honey and wax—sweetness and light—for thousands of years, the honeybee has not been tamed. “Wheat is domesticated. Cows are domesticated. Dogs are domesticated,” John said. “Domestication is a mutual process. You could never domesticate a robin. Bees are the same as robins. They will quite happily live in a nest box that you give them. But they’re not dependent on you. They don’t need you.”

“One day, son, all this anxiety will be yours.”

Cartoon by Juan Astasio

John did not believe that beekeeping’s intensive turn was helping the bees. He looked around for other skeptics and came across “The Principles of Beekeeping Backwards,” a quasi-mystical tract published in Bee Culture, in the summer of 2srcsrc1. The text was by Charles Martin Simon, a.k.a. Charlie Nothing, an artist and an experimental-rock musician who invented the dingulator, a guitar-like instrument made from car parts.

Simon, who was based outside Santa Cruz, California, was also an organic farmer and a beekeeper. He had developed his own kind of bee frame. (In the fall of 1851, the Reverend Lorenzo L. Langstroth, a Congregationalist pastor from Philadelphia, created the world’s first commercially viable beehive with removable frames and, thus, modern beekeeping.) “Beekeeping Backwards” was Simon’s disavowal of the craft that he’d practiced for forty years. He rejected chemicals for treating varroa; synthetic foundation frames, to make bees construct neat honeycombs; and the removal of male drones, which don’t contribute to honey-making. “Our industry is directed by madmen,” Simon wrote. “They have been driven mad by the fear of death and simultaneously compelled irresistibly toward it. Death of our beloved bees. Death of our beloved industry. Death of ourselves.”

The better part of two centuries after Langstroth’s hive went on sale, natural beekeepers liken much conventional beekeeping to industrial agriculture—permeated by chemicals and the delusion of human control. They dwell on the differences between the lives of wild, or free-living, bees and those which are kept in apiaries. Managed bees are typically kept in a drafty box low to the ground, as opposed to a snug nest high in a hollow tree. Most beekeepers’ colonies are much larger than those which occur in the wild, and rival colonies might be separated by only a few yards, rather than by half a mile. Much of the bees’ honey, which is supposed to get them through the winter, is taken before they have a chance to eat it. A queen bee goes on a spree of mating flights early in her life, and then lays the fertilized eggs until her death. In apiaries, queens often have their wings clipped, to interrupt swarming (a colony’s natural form of reproduction), and are routinely inspected, and replaced by newcomers, sometimes imported from the other side of the world. Propolis—a wonderful, sticky substance that bees make from tree resin and that has antibacterial qualities—is typically scraped out of hives by beekeepers because it is annoying and hard to get off their hands.

These are all dire interventions in the fabric of the colony. No wonder the bees keep dying. In a normal year, perhaps ten or fifteen per cent of bee colonies die in the winter. Last winter, America’s bees suffered colony losses of close to forty per cent, with varroa, “queen issues,” and starvation among the leading causes. High death rates tend to lead to more bee imports, more bee medication, more bee supplements, more bee-breeding programs, and the whole unwieldy cycle continues.

Natural beekeepers leave their bees alone. They seldom treat for disease—allowing the weaker colonies to fail—and they raise the survivors in conditions that are as close as possible to tree cavities. They fill their hives with swarms that come in on the wing, rather than those which come from dealers who trade on the Internet. They treasure the bees for their own sake—like a goldfinch that nests in the yard—and have an evangelical spirit, as if they have stumbled on a great secret. They are disdainful of conventional beekeepers. “They’ve completely lost sight of the creature,” John told me.

Honey is a touchy subject. John said that he harvests only an absolute excess—after the bees have enough for two winters and a wet summer—and even then he won’t take money for it. “It’s not my honey to sell,” he explained. Another natural beekeeper, who abstains from taking honey altogether, referenced “When Harry Met Sally” to explain his position: “There was this line, ‘Sex always gets in the way of friendship.’ I think honey always gets in the way of us appreciating bees.”

Bees were long held to be prophetic—messengers from another realm. The name of Deborah, the prophetess and judge of the Old Testament, translates as “bee.” The priestesses who tended the oracle at Delphi were known as Melissae. Melissa means “bee,” too. For a quarter century, anxiety about the fate of honeybees has been a manifestation of our unease about the state of pollinators and our biomes in general. But that doesn’t mean we have been interpreting the problems correctly, or that humans are the best placed to find solutions. Natural beekeepers think of themselves as deferring to the bees for guidance. “If I go to a hive and I put my hand on the hive . . . I can actually feel their presence, and that balance and that skill and that beauty that only nature can provide,” Jonathan Powell, of Britain’s Natural Beekeeping Trust, told me. “And yet if I think of a bee flying up to the window of my house, putting their antennae on my house, I’m frankly embarrassed by the way I live, and how clumsy and how stupid I am.”

In Oxfordshire, John led the way to his apiary, which was on a small pasture at the back of his property, bounded by high hedgerows. There was a lock on the gate and a small workshop, where he makes and maintains fifteen or so hives. A honeybee colony is a female commonwealth—a biological marvel of social decision-making by a queen and her thousands of female workers. (Beekeeping, by contrast, was for a long time a patriarchy. The monks of Mt. Athos, in Greece, were allowed to keep bees because the insects were assumed to be all male.)

Brough imports queens from Denmark. When he introduced a new queen to one of his hives, it disappeared. One day, Brough found John and two other natural beekeepers standing outside his hives. “They were trying to kill my queens,” he said. (John described Brough’s account as “slander” and said that he had stumbled across Brough’s hives, unaware of his presence in the orchard.) Brough says that he offered the natural beekeepers a jar of honey, to show that there were no hard feelings, but they declined. (Eventually, both Brough and John stopped working at the gardens.) Brough dismissed natural beekeeping as an image thing. “It’s new, green, rock and roll,” he said. “Beards and sandals.” He thought for a moment. “Quite a lot of ordinary beekeepers also have beards and sandals,” he conceded. Brough told me that he makes a subsistence living from selling queens and the honey that he harvests each year. “Why they want to keep honeybees, I do not know,” he said.

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