New Internationalist

Honeybees get a helping hand

March 2011

Barefoot beekeepers’ adopt an alternative approach to safeguarding the threatened bee population.

Photo by James Diedrick under a CC Licence
Photo by James Diedrick under a CC Licence

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.

Ian Fitzpatrick is a freelance writer and budding beekeeper.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 440 This feature was published in the March 2011 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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  1. #1 celestial elf 18 Mar 11

    bees and permaculture

    Great Post, thank you :D
    thought you might enjoy my machinima film the bee myth
    blessed bee!
    elf ~

  2. #2 Grace 28 Mar 11

    Who are you kidding?

    I find your article pockmarked with inaccuracies.

    For a start, I would like to know whether the remark you quoted from Dr Heaf is actually his. I can't see him making such a quote of that nature, particularly as he and other beekeepers are acutely aware that there have been cases of CCD in naturally kept colonies.

    Further, the crisis you report is not worldwide as you imply. Australia has very strong stock and there is no decline or CCD or varroa...whereas I can't say the same for stock found in the northern hemisphere. Stronger stock? Hardly. The reverse is actually happening.

    Just who are you kidding here?

  3. #3 IanF 30 Mar 11


    @celestial elf: Thanks for your comment and link. v.interesting.

    @Grace: In answer to your question, Yes, Dr.Heaf did say that during an exchange I had with him.

    From what I have read and beekeepers I have talked to, 'naturally' kept bee colonies have extremely low-to-no rates of CCD. For example, in the US, CCD was reported to affect around 34% of colonies in 2009 (with some areas reporting bee colony losses of over 50%). Compare this to rates well below 5% for natural beekeepers (as reported by a beekeeper from Washington State in USA).

    I would be interested to know where you have found evidence that naturally kept bees have experienced CCD?

    As for Australian bees not experiencing varroa: you are right that it is reported to varroa-free at the moment. But Varroa is already found throughout neighbouring New Zealand and Papua New Guinea and many scientists believe it is only a matter of time before varroa spread to Australia.

    Interestingly, there is some evidence that CCD in USA may have originally come from Australia...

  4. #4 bufobeezus 24 Oct 12

    ~ to bee completely honest ~ it would be much more engaging to read about the cultural and symbolic relationships us humanos have had with bees for eons

  5. #5 Erohiel 20 May 14

    You have a picture of a CARPENTER bee on your article about honeybees... Makes me think you don't know much about them at all.

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This article was originally published in issue 440

New Internationalist Magazine issue 440
Issue 440

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