It’s hard work being a honeybee. Varroa mites and other parasites feed on them and destroy hives; moths feed on wax and destroy honeycomb; bacterial diseases infect larva and damage colonies; fungal and viral diseases affect bees at various stages of their lifecycle; and agricultural pesticides and insecticides, picked up while foraging for pollen, go on to poison bees inside the colony. All of this, coupled with changes in weather patterns, habitat loss and the mysterious colony collapse disorder, has led to the widely reported crisis of the honeybee (see NI 425).
A collapse of the global bee population would be a major threat to food production. It is estimated that a third of everything we eat depends upon insect pollination – around 80 per cent of which is carried out by honeybees.
The plight of the honeybee has led to a resurgence of amateur beekeeping. Backed by research which shows that honeybees in urban areas often have access to more biodiversity than their rural peers, beehives have been set up in the back gardens and rooftops of cities around the world, and interest in beekeeping courses has soared.
The vast majority of beekeepers still use the same rectangular hive box developed by Lorenzo Langstroth in the mid-1800s, along with a set of practices, such as feeding sugar to bees and suppressing bee swarming, aimed at producing larger quantities of honey.
However, many of these practices are criticized by a growing movement of sustainable beekeepers. These ‘barefoot beekeepers’ have developed alternative approaches which emphasize small-scale, low-cost, chemical-free beekeeping with simple equipment and locally adapted bee populations. These bee-friendly methods result in lower honey harvests, but stronger and healthier bee populations. David Heaf, author of The Bee Friendly Beekeeper, explains that although there have been no scientifically conducted studies on natural beekeeping, he has not heard of any report of ‘so-called colony collapse disorder from any natural beekeepers’.
Much like organic farming, which reduces the need for artificial inputs, natural or sustainable beekeeping uses methods which respect the needs of both bees and the natural environment. This low input approach means that sustainable beekeeping can be widely taken up by both hobby beekeepers with spare roof space and small-scale entrepreneurs in developing countries. Such beekeepers can play a fundamental role in helping to reverse the decline in bee populations.