I was very lucky last week as the Exeter Beekeeping Association had some spare spaces for a Zoom talk by Professor Tom Seeley. If you’re a beekeeper yourself you have probably heard of him – he’s well known for his research into honey bee swarming and foraging behaviour. He has written five books, the most recent of which is ‘The Lives of Bees: The Untold Story of the Honey Bee in the Wild’ (2019).
He comes across as a gentle, thoughtful man. He began his presentation by showing us two pictures: one of Lorenzo Langstroth, and one of Charles Darwin. He explained that both had insights that can help us with our beekeeping – the concept of the moveable frame hive, and the concept of evolution by natural selection.
Darwin’s concept tells us that everything that colonies do when they are living on their own (in control of their own lives) is done to favour their survival and their reproduction.
What is Darwinian beekeeping?
Professor Seeley went on to explain his own principles of Darwinian beekeeping, which revolve around allowing the bees to use their own “beekeeping” skills fully: the bees are superb “beekeepers”. He explains more about this idea in ‘The Lives of Bees’ book. He told us that this way of beekeeping is not for everyone. It’s for those beekeepers with a small number of hives.
Based on his research on wild colonies living in Ithaca, New York, he feels it’s not always the case that bees need help dealing with varroa. The Arnot Forest there is an area of mainly deciduous forest about a five hour drive from New York City. He has studied colonies in the forest since 1978, and has seen the forest getting wilder and wilder, so that it now is home to black bears and ravens. There used to be farms in the area but these are mainly now abandoned and the hills forested.
The area is the one place in North America with data on wild colony abundance before the arrival of the varroa mite (ca. 1994). Tom mapped the colonies out before that and found:
Before varroa (1978): 1.0 colonies per square km
After varroa (2002): 1.0 colonies per square km
It would seem that varroa had not impacted the density of these colonies, despite the colonies being wild and receiving no treatments. Tom wanted to test whether the bees did in fact have varroa. In 2003 and 2004, he caught 11 swarms in the Arnot Forest, finding that 100% of these had varroa, 9% chalkbrood and none had any AFB or EFB. So the bees had not avoided varroa.
Varroa mite infestation – © Crown copyright 2010 “Courtesy The Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), Crown Copyright”
In the right location, and the right size operation, Tom suggests that you may want to consider NOT treating for varroa. But you have to be satisfied with modest honey crops of around 25 pounds per hive. He also advised that not treating may not be suitable for urban beekeepers keeping more than a couple of hives close together. (Although he mentioned a book he’s a fan of – ‘The Idle Beekeeper’ by Bill Anderson – a Londoner who Tom said is a ‘Darwinian beekeeper’ in spirit).
He took us through a series of comparisons:
Original environment of honey bees (Wild)
Current circumstances of honey bees (Managed)
|Colonies are genetically adapted to their location
||Colonies are not genetically adapted
|Colonies live widely spaced in woods (on average 1,000m apart in the Arnot forest)
||Colonies live crowded in apiaries
|Colonies live in small nest cavities and swarm freely
||Colonies live in super-sized nest cavities (often multi-storey) and swarm rarely. This massive brood nest makes them a varroa gold mine.
|Nest cavity walls are thick and coated with propolis
||Hive walls are thin and not coated with propolis
|Colonies build drone comb freely – 15-20% drone comb
||Colonies discouraged from building drone comb – produce fewer drones
|Nest entrance high off ground (avg 8m)
||Nest entrance is low to ground – more vulnerable to predators
|Colonies have diverse pollen sources
||Colonies have non-diverse pollen sources (e.g. hives taken for pollination contracts)
|Colonies are not treated – bees evolve resistance
||Bees are treated
In Tom’s Darwinian ethos of beekeeping, the goal is to allow managed colonies to live in their original environment. Colonies will make less honey, but they will have better health.
Some of Tom’s guidelines for Darwinian beekeeping
- Keep bees that are adapted to your location: Rear queens from your best survivor colonies, OR Capture swarms with bait hives, OR Purchase bees from a local queen breeder
- House your colonies in small hives – e.g. one deep 10-frame hive body + 1 shallow super over a queen excluder. The thinking behind this is that mite levels get higher in large colonies.
- Space your colonies as widely as possible – even 30-50m apart still gives lots of benefits in avoiding the “mite bomb” phenomenon among crowded colonies.
- Line your hives with propolis collection boards, to encourage the bees to collect the same levels as they would in the wild.
- Provide your most resilient colonies with 10-20% drone comb, to promote the genetic success of your best colonies.
- Put each frame back in its original location and orientation. No reversing of brood box frames. The bees work hard to organise their brood box how they see fit.
- Provide only a small entrance at the bottom (many US beekeepers provide top entrances too).
As well as explaining these guidelines, he told us about many mini-experiments he had done which back some of these methods up.
I found these ideas interesting. Some I am doing already: local bees, small hives, a small entrance at the bottom. I could try going foundationless in at least some frames, to encourage more drone rearing. I will continue to treat for varroa because I know there are beekeepers in my local area, and I don’t want my colonies spreading mites to them. Cornwall is not quite the Arnot Forest! Spacing colonies widely would be the most challenging part. I think 30-50m apart would be impossible for many urban beekeepers. The median garden size for a house in London is 140 square metres, just over half the size of a tennis court, while one in eight British households has no access to a garden at all.
What do you think, would you try any of these methods?
For alternative viewpoints critiquing Tom’s ideas, see these blogs:
The Bee Improvers and Bee Breeders Association (BIBBA) are running a series of webinars (some free, some for a small fee) which you can see at bibba.com/webinars. They have something for all levels of experience and cover all sorts of topics, so well worth checking out.