Hello. My name is Lynne and I am a beekeeper. Well, that is not strictly true; although I was taught to keep bees in the most impeccable and professional manner over 6 years ago, I have since chosen to become a bee landlady. I don’t keep bees, I provide accommodation and food for them. Without charge. And I don’t take any honey from them either, choosing to leave it for them as stores for the winter, as nature intended.
I have always thought it arrogant and selfish to expect my bees to work as hard as they do to provide a sweetener for me. My sweetener, or reward, is purely to watch them work in my garden. One of my treasured late-winter routines is to wait quietly next to a patch of snowdrops to watch a honey bee reversing out of the nodding flower head with her pollen baskets full of bright orange pollen. Who would have thought that snowdrops had such vivid orange pollen? Their hanging heads kept that secret with the bees. Until now!
In the time that I have ‘hosted’ honey bees I have also noticed a real increase of energy throughout the garden. They have brought the space to life and created – well, it has to be said, - a real ‘buzz’.
A lovely testimony to them came in the guise of a nervous neighbour. When I spoke to her of my intention to keep bees, she was initially very apprehensive and negative, worried that her little grandchildren would get stung or be intimidated by them. Just weeks later she enthusiastically shared stories of how the grandchildren were taking great delight in discovering which flowers the bees preferred, and fondly referring to them as ‘Lynne’s bees’. One child had even been stung, but I was assured it was a complete accident; she knelt on one and was incredibly upset - not by the sharp sting but to learn that the bee died as a result of defending itself. My neighbour was grateful for the valuable lessons being learned organically. My bee pride blossomed!
Despite my own compassionate beliefs, and attitude toward nature and its workers, my beekeeping lessons were very conventional with a commercial edge. It was assumed that the benefit of keeping bees was the honey. I absorbed all the knowledge I could from some very talented and experienced beekeepers but once I was ‘flying solo’ I engaged my own more intuitive approach. I abandoned the weekly hive inspections as I felt the disruption was debilitating for the bees. They work hard to keep the hive at a constant 34 degrees so every time I inspected the hive I upset that balance. I was taught that inspection is necessary to look for disease and ‘problems’ within the hive and to avoid the task was irresponsible. Irresponsible for whom, I wondered. It felt far more irresponsible to keep disturbing my bees and causing them unnecessary stress.
Commercial beekeepers also consider swarming to be the epitome of a bad beekeeper. Bees swarm when their hives become overcrowded. The commercial beekeeper will take measures to prevent over crowding and therefore prevent swarming, in turn retaining as many bees as possible to produce as much honey as possible. My bees swarm to their hearts content. It is nature’s way of creating and spreading new colonies. It is natural.
In my guise as a speaker, I relayed many of my bee-hosting experiences and was once accused of being a ‘bad beekeeper’. When I told the audience that I don’t take any honey from my apiary, one man sneered, “That means you have 80,000 bees as pets. I bet you have even named them all.”
“Not at all,” I replied cheerfully, “just my favourites.”
Unnerved that I may have been unintentionally causing my bees unnecessary suffering, I researched my own methods of bee hosting to find there are many other people hosting bees in the same way and with the same reverence. It is called ‘natural beekeeping’ or ‘extensive beekeeping’ as opposed to ‘intensive beekeeping’. I keep bees for pleasure, not profit.
Fortunately, there is increasing interest and desire to help protect our honey bees but ‘keeping’ them is not always the best method. Even natural beekeeping requires a lot more commitment and application then just having a ‘box of bees’ in your garden.
Other ways you can help are to provide food in the form of pollen rich plants.
Choose native varieties not hybrids and ‘fancy plants’. Provide water; bees (and butterflies) are unable to drink from deep water as the surface tension won’t hold their weight. They need shallow puddles and boggy areas from which to obtain water. Obviously these habitats are susceptible to drying out quickly, but you can make a wonderful drinking station for insects by creating a bog garden in an upturned dustbin lid or large saucers, or even adapting a birdbath. You will be amazed by the amount of visitors who will join you for a drink.
And finally, read a little. Knowledge is power. I am always horrified by the amount of people who attempt to destroy swarms of honey bees during the summer months. Swarming is a natural phenomenon, and is actually a time when bees are at their most placid as they are preoccupied with finding a new home and have their tummies full of honey to sustain their search.
Have the telephone number of your local Bee Association by the phone (or in your phone) should you need their assistance, and make sure that friends and neighbours are clued up too.
To paraphrase the German philosopher Novalis, “Every bee-loved object is the centre point of a paradise”.
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