Thoughts on natural beekeeping
Every day I read something like this: “I want to do it differently. I want to raise my bees without chemicals or foundation or syrup. I want all-natural bees.”
Some writers come across as arrogant or superior, others as naïve or apologetic. But regardless of the wording, I never know how to respond. After all, who doesn’t want all-natural bees?
In all my years, I have never heard a beekeeper say, “I want to raise chemically-dependent bees. I want to flood my hives with antibiotics, acaricides, and fumigants. I want my bees to feast on GMO syrup and soy-based pollen substitute.” Even those who believe in “better living through chemistry”—those who don’t believe man-made chemicals are a threat to health or environment—would rather do it the natural way. Why? Because nothing eats away at the bottom line faster than a truckload of patented propriety formulations.
So if we all want the same thing, why all the dissension, name-calling, and derision? In my opinion, the division between natural beekeepers and unnatural ones is artificial. We have tried to divide them into discrete groups—right and wrong, black and white, good and bad—but it doesn’t work.
I contend that we all fall on a line, a continuum that stretches from the very natural to the very unnatural. Far from being one or the other, we mostly fall in the middle between the two. Did you ever have a teacher who lined up your class by height, shortest to tallest? Think of it like that: no boxes, just nearly imperceptible increments of difference.
Where we fall on that line has to do with our experience, our resources, and our goals. Few similarities exist between a hobbyist in the San Francisco suburbs and a commercial beekeeper hoping to make the next house payment. One is dipping candles on the weekend; the other is trying to feed a nation. If one loses his bees, he buys more. If the other loses his bees, he goes bankrupt.
Where you fit on the naturalness line has a lot to do with the number of hives you manage. Let’s say you are a self-professed “natural beekeeper” controlling mites with powdered sugar. Powdering fifteen hives once a week with sugar dust feels very different than powdering three. When you get to 150 or 1500 hives, dusting becomes your life. (Although I have yet to understand how injecting beehives with refined and crushed table sugar is “natural,” I will leave that for another day.)
Do I believe that natural beekeeping is possible? Absolutely, but I think it doesn’t work for everyone. Being a beekeeper implies that you are caring for bees, and to do that you need knowledge, time, money, and the willingness to do uncomfortable things. A true natural beekeeper is highly knowledgeable and probably spends more effort per bee than any other group.
To me, it doesn’t matter where on the spectrum you fall, as long as you have a plan. Bees are in trouble, so in most cases doing nothing is not an option. If you do nothing, if you put bees in a box, ignore them, and mumble something about “survival of the fittest,” you are not a beekeeper—certainly not a natural one. If you are not willing to commit, you are simply enamored with the idea of beekeeping rather than beekeeping itself.
But no matter what you call yourself, I believe the plan is key. Will you feed your bees? If so, with what? How will you handle Varroa mites? What will you do about foulbrood, Nosema, tracheal mites? What will you do about predators, robbers, neighbors, snow, wind, and rain? You need to have a plan and see it through.
I am very accepting of alternative ideas and methods, but the only way I accept a so-called beekeeper walking away from his responsibility and saying, “let nature take its course” is if that person handles his own health and the health of his children in the very same way. If your child comes home from school with viral meningitis, and you just shrug and say “let nature take its course,” then maybe I will understand when you do the same to your bees.