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Are you a natural beekeeper?

Wow. I hate that question. When I hear it I want to snap, “No. I’m not natural. I’m a fake. It’s all smoke and mirrors.” But I’m too polite (well, usually) to go there.

You see, I don’t know what you mean by “natural beekeeper.” I don’t know your definition. I don’t even know what you call an unnatural one.

The way I see it, all beekeepers fall on a bell curve. The x-axis measures “naturalness” from zero to infinity. The y-axis measures the number of beekeepers. Like anything else that falls on a bell curve, you will have a very small number of beekeepers at each end of the curve (the very unnatural and the very natural) while most are going to fall somewhere in the middle.

Bell curve

The real problem is in the definition. On this website, I’ve deliberately avoided calling my style of beekeeping natural, although it is much closer to natural than unnatural. If I call what I do natural, it will just elicit argument from those whose definition is different from my own. Does that follow?

It’s similar to politics. On some issues you could call me left (liberal) and on other issues you could call me right (conservative). So I don’t bother with a label because it just confuses people. Labels come with a host of expectations which are different depending on who’s listening.

So what is a natural beekeeper? As Phillip over at Mudsongs recently pointed out, the phrase “natural beekeeper” is an oxymoron. Bees don’t naturally live under the care of humans; they would rather do it their own way. So if you are keeping bees in a manmade structure and you try to prevent them from leaving (swarming), you’ve created an unnatural situation—one that does not exist in nature.

Some aspects of beekeeping engender more argument than others. For example, most beekeepers agree that using chemical pesticides precludes one from being natural. But what about organic acids or essential oils for mite control? Some say it is okay, some say it is not.

Where else might you draw the line? Well, like I said, it depends on who you talk to, but here are a few ideas. The following things are definitely unnatural, at least from the bees’ perspective:

  • Hive inspections
  • Re-queening
  • Any type of swarm prevention
  • Artificial feed, including sugar and pollen substitutes
  • Making the bees build up when the want to build down or vice versa (brood nest management)
  • Artificial insemination
  • Preformed foundation
  • Drone management
  • Plastic parts in the hive
  • Queen marking or clipping
  • Harvesting honey, pollen, propolis, or wax

My point is that naturalness is a relative thing. And if you are keeping bees—managing bees—you have already crossed the line into unnaturalness. If you are a beginner, I think it is important to find your own place on the continuum. Don’t let people intimidate you into a definition of naturalness that doesn’t fit with your own goals, beliefs, experience, or financial means.

I would argue that even those beekeepers on the extreme natural end of the curve—those that consider themselves super natural beekeepers—aren’t really. Natural beekeeping is something you can aspire to, strive for, but you’ll never actually achieve. If you asked the bees their opinion of human interlopers, I’m sure it wouldn’t be good—no matter what techniques they ascribe to.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Comments

Clive-D
Reply

Hi. I’m in the South East UK, it’s early spring here. I picked up a Top Bar Hive and colony last Friday. The whole natural discussion is interesting and sits quite well with my day life which is new baby communication. The UK has big varroa mite problems and our native black bee is all but extinct. If there were no beekeepers there would be very few bees – BUT, if there were no beekeepers the varroa mite would probably never have got to the UK.

I decided on a Top Bar Hive (TBH) in preference to National/Langstroff hives because a TBH allows the bees more freedom to behave in a more natural way and create comb of their choice. Also, inspections are much less invasive and generally TBH beekeepers LISTEN and OBSERVE the bees, trying to work with them. Honey is collected in small amounts over time, always ensuring enough honey is left for the colony – feeding is kept to a minimum. I have no plans to use smoke, my first inspection yesterday during a huge pollen flow and chaos around the hive saw no problems at all. Removing one bar at a time and closing the space with the follower board kept the colony enclosed and warm. I have sugar powder to puff on them (so they groom and clean themselves as a basic varroa treatment) and a water mister – a couple of sprays and they keep their heads down because the girls hate getting wet!

There is nothing nicer than being a bee guardian and benefiting from the excess honey they produce, rather than a ‘farmer’ who’s focus is volume of honey over bee wellbeing. Natural for me is all these things, yes, caging an insect is not natural, but if they are not happy they will die or abscond!

BTW, love the site
Cheers, Clive

Jeff
Reply

“Natural beekeeping is something you can aspire to, strive for, but you’ll never actually achieve.”

Well said! (Not just the quote, the entire post)

I usually try to avoid the discussion when it comes up on internet forums, the debate tends to reach a religious fervour – and that’s just on the natural beekeeping sites!

Also, hive type often gets brought into the issue and this is largely irrelevant. This is more of a function of the demographic attracted to particular designs that makes one (KTBHs for example) appear to be more natural than another. “Natural” beekeeping can be done in pretty much any type of hive, it all comes down to the beekeeper and her/his methods. Decidedly unnatural beekeeping can also be done in any type of hive, but in North America Langstroth hives seem to be the top choice for that crowd, which lends to its reputation.

Rusty
Reply

Hey Jeff,

Good point on the hive design. Because commercial beekeepers, included the migratory types, all use Langstroths, Langstroths must be bad–or at least “unnatural.” That just is not true. As you point out, a beekeeper can be natural or un in any type of equipment.

As I mentioned in the post, I try to avoid labeling myself because it can create such a furor. I try to be as natural as I can, all the while doing an unnatural thing.

Speaking of religious fervor . . . folks always say that beekeepers are the nicest people in the world, but every time I visit a bee forum I come away thinking otherwise. If they all know everything, why do they go there?

Phillip
Reply

“… I try to avoid labeling myself because it can create such a furor.”

One could argue that’s exactly the reason to do it.

Rusty
Reply

One could . . .

Nancy
Reply

This was good for a chuckle. I try to farm sustainably, but not because of inspections, certifications or other outside pressures, merely because it makes scientific sense to me.

So when a customer asks, “Are you organic?” it is tempting to reply, “Well, yes, I am in fact composed of complex hydrocarbon molecules capable of self-replication and decomposition…but I don’t have a certificate to prove it.”

But thanks, I’ll be prepared, when there’s honey to sell, to be asked if I’m “natural” too.

James
Reply

Rusty, I think you are a natural beekeeper. You are intelligent, courageous, humorous, physically active, eager to learn, pragmatic, considerate and generous. These seem to be naturally excellent qualities in a beekeeper.

Rusty
Reply

James,

Thank you for such a beautiful, though undeserved, compliment.

Keith
Reply

Thumbs up.

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