Tom Seeley on Darwinian Beekeeping

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 mites

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)
vs
Current circumstances of honey bees  (Managed)

Original Current
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.

Drone comb

Drone comb

Some of Tom’s guidelines for Darwinian beekeeping

  1. 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
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Line your hives with propolis collection boards, to encourage the bees to collect the same levels as they would in the wild.
  5. Provide your most resilient colonies with 10-20% drone comb, to promote the genetic success of your best colonies.
  6. 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.
  7. 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?

Further reading

For alternative viewpoints critiquing Tom’s ideas, see these blogs:

More webinars

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.

About Emily Scott

I am a UK beekeeper who has recently moved from London to windswept, wet Cornwall. I first started keeping bees in the Ealing Beekeepers Association’s local apiary in 2008, when I created this blog as a record for myself of my various beekeeping related disasters and - hopefully! - future successes.
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21 Responses to Tom Seeley on Darwinian Beekeeping

  1. Ron Miksha says:

    Thanks for this very nice summary of Dr Seeley’s Darwinian lecture. My father practised “Darwinian Beekeeping” half a century ago, but he called it “let alone” beekeeping. He did the minimum necessary for his bees, figuring that human disturbance wasn’t necessary. That’s not what is being advocated here, by Tom Seeley, but in some respects, it’s not so different.
    I am curious about the 24 year gap between 1978 and 2002’s sampling. It would be enlightening to know how severely the 1-colony/km2 density fell immediately after varroa arrived. It is that big die-off that makes most beekeepers give up on their own “Live and Let Die” model.

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  2. There is a great deal of debate over the presentation of Dr. Seeley’s observations in the Arnot Forest as prescriptions for practice. More research definitely needs to be done.

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  3. avwalters says:

    One of the factors not mentioned is the proximity of your bee yard to sprayed farmers’ fields. Exposure to pesticides weakens the hive, which, when combined with varroa, might not be a recipe for success. We have only 3 to six hives in any given year. We cannot space them, because we have to do bear fencing, and that would be prohibitive. But we test and only do treatments if necessary. And we use rhubarb leaf strips on the tops of the frames in the early season. Last year, we tried a hive of ‘mite-muncher’ bees. We were seriously impressed, so much so that we put a frame of them into the other two hives. Come end of season we tested and had zero varroa. No nasty treatments required.

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    • Emily Scott says:

      I’ve heard good things about these ‘mite muncher’ bees in the US. I don’t think I’ve seen any for sale over here.

      Liked by 1 person

      • avwalters says:

        So far, we are impressed. There are upsides and downsides. The honey production is not quite as good as previous hives (but on such a small scale, who knows if that’s performance or weather or whatever.) Also, the hygienic characteristics are not guaranteed in subsequent generations, so you have to get new queens for splits. At this point, we’re happy just sharing frames with the non-mite-muncher hives. It seems that you don’t need a full hive of them to do the trick.

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  4. Thank you for this posting,
    I would love to have Tom Seeley visit Finland some day!

    Juhani Lundén
    naturebees.wordpress.com
    treatment free beekeeping since 2008

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  5. jen3972 says:

    Really good write-up on what was clearly an interesting talk – thank you. I think it’s important to remember the environmental mite load; they are out there on the plants and other bee species so your bees will come in to contact with Varroa whether you and your neighbours treat or not, and treatments do not confer any ongoing protection. Unfortunately drone culling (for Varroa) has probably impacted good genetics far more than it’s affected the mite’s progress. All good topics for discussion! 🙂

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    • Emily Scott says:

      Is there much evidence that varroa survive for long on plants/other species? I thought they were very much a honey bee parasite and would only go on to other bee species if desperate. I have tried drone culling in the past but stopped quite a while ago as I felt so sad for the drones; also the bees seem to like making lots of drones and there must be a good reason for that.

      Liked by 1 person

      • jen3972 says:

        It’s my understanding that mites don’t live/feed on the other bee species but they do climb on and therefore can be carried from one area to another, and can then be picked up by honey bees, ie any forager has the opportunity to collect a mite on its travels and bring it back – it’s not just a non-treating neighbour being the only source of possible ingress of mites.

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  6. hencorner says:

    Very interesting stuff!

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  7. I find his ideas very interesting and possibly practical for amateur beekeepers who have access to other sites for their hives. I have no intention to keep more than 4-5 hives in our garden but that is too close to be “natural”. I too cannot risk not treating my bees in this semi-urban area with other beekeepers around. I agree with his other points and dislike the international traffic of bees. I do believe in “hygenic” bees but because of the bees incredible genetics these “hygenic” genes are not easily transmitted. Amelia

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