Meandering pathways in beekeeping

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by Serge Labesque

When we are starting out in beekeeping, we use techniques that we learn from our fellow beekeepers or the beekeeping literature. We quickly master new skills and soon experience the thrilling, but false, impression that we are in control of the bees. At that point we tend to limit our expertise to these practices, which, unfortunately, are most often soulless, designed to exploit the bees.

Such a widespread replication of conventional ways entrenches them and prevents advances in beekeeping or in the condition of the bees. Progress, on the contrary, could be instigated by questioning the validity of what we are taught, by challenging notions that sometimes seem irrefutable. For a famous non-beekeeping example, consider how Einstein dealt with Newtonian physics. Even though general relativity may still defy our senses and intellect a century after its publication, its application in modern technologies is becoming mundane and actually necessary (e.g. GPS). I wish I could offer an example of a similarly thoughtful, positive, and momentous upheaval in beekeeping, but none comes to mind.

The manner in which I currently practice bee husbandry is the opposite of what I used to do when I started out. This enormous shift did not happen by sudden or huge leaps. It was the result of a gradual evolution in all aspects of my interaction with bees, including tools and equipment, hive management practices, personal inclinations and most importantly my mounting appreciation of the bees. Over the years, my ways in the apiaries have become simpler, less arduous, much more enjoyable and certainly better for the bees. Now, I avoid the use of coercing procedures. Instead, I rely increasingly on the bees’ innate abilities and on my growing knowledge of their biology. However, I’m sure that there is always room for further improvement. So, I keep looking forward to learning, devising and trying new ways that might, at the same time, further enrich my beekeeping experience and be beneficial to the bees.

I remember wanting more and more colonies and being thrilled by pick-up-truck loads of honey. But, boy did this get old fast with the sight of hundreds of bees crushed during rushed and uncouth hive manipulations, and when a gruelling day in the apiary was followed by weeks of intense pain in the lower back (literally)! I remember batches of young queens and colonies that suffered from ill-devised conditions I imposed upon them. I was “working the bees” then. I’m glad that I moved past these errors. I’ve learned that the goal of conventional beekeeping is to exploit bees, not to bring quality to their life or to restore the strength of the species.

Now, my visits to the apiaries and the management of my hives are unhurried, broken down into short, yet effective sessions. I no longer “need” or want more colonies, and I find that I am quite happy offering nest cavities to only a few of them. A quality relationship with the bees is definitely more important than the quantity of hives. I even envision that maybe I could calmly accept being without bees, should circumstances dictate such a predicament. This would have been unfathomable to me only a few years ago.

Having arrived at the conviction that the bees can take care of themselves, I’ve embraced a “no-interference-with-the-process-of-natural-selection” approach to keeping bees. This serenity has come with time and from experimenting with many hive management methods. I’m afraid that the bees paid some of my dues along the way. Could it be that I am approaching some sort of beekeeper maturity? If so, it was long in coming, but I now feel fortified in my beekeeping opinions and practices, as they are standing on sound principles and on a mass of educational mistakes. Certainly, this mindset could be dangerous, if it were to lead to overconfidence. Our convictions need to be continually re-assessed.

At a similar point in his or her beekeeping adventure, one might think that there is nothing left to do for a beekeeper other than to trust that the bees will keep themselves alive, and then to harvest some honey. This is not so. In no instance may we neglect our hives. We can contribute to the safe propagation and strengthening of the species, provide quality homes to bee colonies, educate people about bees, improve ours and the bees’ surroundings, and simply enjoy the bees.

From The Buzzz, the Monthly Newsletter of the Gilroy Beekeepers Association. There is also a good article in the newsletter by Dr. James Tew on low impact beekeeping procedures entitled Being a Bee Friendly Beekeeper.

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