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When Bees Make The Choices

When Bees Make The Choices

All is not well with bees and we need to be worried. Honey is not the issue here, but pollination is, and without honeybees our food choices would be extremely limited.

A lot of things make life difficult for bees: pesticide use in agriculture, lack of food, disease, varroa mites... So what can beekeepers do to help? A lot – as I learnt when I attended a four-day course in organic beekeeping a few weeks ago.

Bees on a comb with grubs, covered brood cells and honey.

Like their conventional beekeeper colleagues organic beekeepers, too, want to harvest honey, but different rules apply. Scientists like Tom Seeley have shown that bee colonies are super-organisms with individual bees communicating and taking on different jobs inside and outside of the hive to ensure its survival. Organic beekeepers therefore interfere a lot less than their conventional colleagues who do a lot to maximise honey yield. While organic beekeepers usually just provide an empty box with some frames in which the bees can build comb, a conventional hive box is like a fully furnished apartment. The lower floor is designed for the queen to lay eggs and the brood to be raised. The top floor, accessible only to the worker bees, is exclusively for storing honey. Much of the drone brood is cut out – drones need to be fed but don’t collect nectar. As with a prize dairy cow and her offspring, conventional beekeepers breed, select and artificially inseminate queens for maximum honey production and docility. And beekeepers will do everything to prevent swarming, including cutting the wings of the queens – something organic beekeeping does not allow.

Organic beekeepers only provide their bees with wooden frames with some wires going across for stability. The beekeeper can lift the frame to check the health of the hive and bees can get on with what they do. This comb shows bee brood in all stages of development and honey at the top for easy access.

Beekeepers will tell you that it is an incredibly beautiful and moving event to witness bees swarming. It is the birth of a new colony: Just days before the new queen hatches the old queen, together with several thousand worker bees, leaves the hive. Forming a cloud they fly only a short distance and settle in a cluster around the queen on a branch or in a bush. With just the honey reserve in their stomachs to sustain themselves the bees have only about 72 hours to find new accommodation. It is an amazing process how the bees scout out potential homes, communicate to the others what they have found and how the whole swarm finally decides where to move – unless a beekeeper collects and rehouses them first. Studies have shown that this fresh start in a clean environment significantly reduces the risk for disease.

Here a frame is just bee-ing pulled out of the hive box, the bees will be gently brushed off. 

Meanwhile, in the old hive, a new queen has hatched. She now goes on her maiden flight and (with luck and no bird snatching her in mid-flight) will be inseminated by 10 to 15 different drones from different hives. That creates a genetic diversity that natural beekeepers believe is vital for bee health. They are on to something.

No offense, American bees, but your sperm isn't cutting it’ is the title of a recent article on research done by scientists at Washington State University. Colony collapse disorder, extreme migratory beekeeping and a growing chemical resistance in varroa mites have contributed to bees in the United States dying in record numbers. The import of bees to the US has been illegal since 1922. Almost 100 years of inbreeding, say the scientists, has left the gene pool completely depleted and bee health particularly vulnerable. On a research trip they collected sperm from bees with traits like resistance to varroa mites in Italy, Slovenia, Germany, Kazakhstan and Georgia. The bees crossbred with this sperm already show a better genetic diversity, though this is an improvement from an extremely low base.

Organic beekeepers and scientists like Tom Seeley are studying bees in their natural environment. Like woodpeckers would do researchers have hollowed out the tree, but one side is a detachable piece of wood and bark that allows the researchers to have an occasional look at what’s going on inside.

By allowing their bees to swarm and the queens to mate naturally organic beekeepers help to maintain and improve the genetic diversity bee colonies in Europe still have. In the end bee health matters more than honey. If you're interested in bees, check out the Soil Association's #BeeOrganic campaign, and get involved.