Wise Bees, Novice Keepers: A Natural Beekeeping Tale

A hive is more than a box of bees.

Natural beekeeping: Bees

Last year, in late summer’s faded hazy days, we watched as our first colony of bees slowly died. The queen had left or had been killed, replaced with a laying worker bee who was popping out unfertilized eggs that were hatching only male drones. These drones do nothing: no foraging for nectar nor pollen, no cleaning of the hive, no feeding of larvae. They are all noise and sex. Because the worker bees were not replaced when they reached the end of their lifecycle, the hive grew gradually more quiet. Fewer bees coming and going, less food coming in to be stored for the coming chill — only those drones, circling the hive in their loud confusion until they, too, died. Then silence. The hive was once again nothing more than a wooden box, standing in the long shadows of the meadow as summer drifted toward autumn.

We blamed ourselves, we blamed the weather, we blamed the wasps who had burgled the hive as the population waned. As beginner beekeepers, it was heartbreaking. In 2016, my partner, ML, and I had upped sticks and moved from Bristol, UK, to an old farmhouse in France. Tucked away in a rural corner of Saône-et-Loire, in southwest Burgundy, the place gave us the opportunity to try to become as self-sufficient as possible. I had been a chef for twenty years, and I wanted to approach food from another perspective, to see the beginnings of things and to improve my understanding of the challenges of producing food cleanly, in tune with nature. For ML, who had grown up nearby, it was a return to the fold and to family. For me it was a leap into the unknown.

Farmhouse in Saône-et-Loire

Our interest in bees had been piqued after taking a course in natural beekeeping. We felt the addition of a couple of beehives would help close the circle between us, our garden, and the ecosystem around us. The prospect of our own honey only helped to seal the deal.

Our original introduction of the bees to the hive had been somewhat brutal and chaotic. We had bought a box of bees, along with a separate mated queen, from a breeder near Colmar up by the border with Germany. They were delivered by lorry to a pick-up point an hour away from us. We drove to fetch them, positioned the box securely in the back of the car, and made our way back to our tumbledown farmhouse with a boot full of bees. There we donned our giant white beekeeper suits, our vision and movement immediately restricted. Prizing open the box of bees, I upended it over the empty hive, banging and shaking it to remove ten thousand tiny, angry aliens now quite far from home. Inevitably some were squashed, and the whole process seemed tailor-made to discourage the bees from hanging around near these clumsy, violent giants dressed as astronauts. But hang around they did, until they died: civilizational collapse.

This year we determined to try again.

 

Throughout the villages of Saône-et-Loire and along its winding rural lanes, it is common in the summer to see gardens filled with ripening red tomatoes, the shock-haired punk of globe artichokes in flower, or seas of squash leaves dotted with fattening pumpkins. The connections to older rural life here run deep, the traditions of providing food for the table extending beyond hobbyist herb gardening. You see chickens scratching in someone’s front yard, a nodding goose or two, or a couple of pigs snorting and snuffling acorns beneath the oaks that shadow the landscape. Husbandry and agriculture have not fallen by the wayside. This is still, for many, the way of things: everyday life.

Often, tucked away at the back of these homestead patches, you might spy two or three beehives. They are diverse in design. Our own are Warré hives. Also known as “the People’s Hive”, they were designed by Émile Warré, a 19th-Century French abbot and beekeeper who published several books on bees. After years of research and observation, he designed a new type of hive intended to mimic as closely as possible the cavities and crevices that honeybees populate in the wild. He also wanted the hive to be practical for the beekeeper, plus easy and economical to build using readily available materials and simple tools. Thus, the People’s Hive was born.

Wild, or feral, honeybees will colonize the most unlikely of spaces — chimneys, caves, cavities in walls. In Poland, enthusiasts usher bees into hollowed-out logs they then hoist into the forest canopy, then leave alone until (if) there’s enough honey to spare. In my French village, Anzy-le-Duc, there is a colony of bees that lives happily in the walls of the 11th-Century priory. Left to their own devices and thriving for who-knows-how-many years, their presence negates the notion that honeybees will die without human intervention. It is true, however, that the optimum conditions for a colony are quite specific. Temperature, humidity levels, the flora and fauna of the hive floor — all are managed attentively by the bees themselves. Rather than just a box of bees, a hive is an ecosystem of its own, a microbiome of bacteria and fungi and insects, all integral to the lifecycle of the super-organism that is the colony.

Bees and other pollinators are in decline worldwide, irrefutably. They experience many environmental pressures, like the prevalence of pesticides in agriculture and in domestic gardens, and the changing landscape of rural areas that are increasingly given over to monoculture, crowding out wildflowers. The balance has been tipped, and not in favor of the insects. Luckily, the region I live in is carpeted with small cattle farms whose vast acreage of unmanaged meadows and hedgerows endures little or no spraying of commercial anything-icides or fertilizers. And although as everywhere, insect life here has declined in recent decades, it is holding at encouraging levels.

It made sense to us, when researching beekeeping, to move away from the modern commercial methods that are more interventionist in style. These techniques call for opening hives regularly to examine the colony, treating the bees with miticides and fungicides, and taking honey every year regardless of whether the bees have enough stores to see them through the winter. An alternative, known as natural beekeeping, advocates none of this. It calls for low-interference techniques that allow the bees to swarm naturally, manage parasite levels themselves, and keep as much honey as they need. There is much controversy and argument about the pros and cons of natural beekeeping, with passionate and knowledgeable people taking reasonable positions on either side. As an amateur I remain open to learning from both sides, but by nature I incline to letting the bees do what they do, and have been doing, for millions of years.

Of course, the fact that our first colony failed may be evidence that I am wrong. Time and experience will tell.

Natural beekeeping: Kieran Jefferson with his bees

Émile Warré, our hive’s originator, was also of the mind that bees already know how to be. His design allows for retention of the warmth and physical atmosphere of the hive, with new boxes being added underneath instead of on top. There is no artificial comb structure; rather, it has horizontal bars from the which the bees are encouraged to draw their own comb — another miraculous product of their bodies, made by exuding wax flakes from glands, then chewing and molding them into the hexagonal cathedral walls familiar to us as comb.

Still, as fabulous as natural beekeeping sounds, it’s not a common practice, which made sourcing our second colony far more challenging. We had decided against packaged bees this time, and wanted to source a colony that was already on honeycomb. This way they’d be further along in their yearly tasks: the queen would already be laying eggs, the brood cells would be filled with larvae, the comb already stocked with honey and nectar. Significantly, it also meant the queen would be the genetic mother of the colony; this is not the case with packaged bees. Packaged bees are supplied with a separate queen, contained in a small cage attended by three or four workers. As she is not the “mother” of the rest of the colony, there is a danger that she will be rejected, even killed. A colony with its own queen, already on her throne and laying eggs at a rate of two thousand per day, has a head start that can be the difference between success and failure.

Sourcing bees already on comb for commercial hives, commonly of Dadant or Langstroth design, is easy, but for Warré hives it is less so. Luckily, we found a beekeeper, one Monsieur Robert in Sennecey-le-Grand, about eighty kilometers from us, who was able to sell us two established colonies already ensconced on Warré bars. We paid our deposit and struck an agreement, then waited two months for his call saying they were, at last, ready to be collected.

We arranged to meet M. Robert in his village. As the afternoon sun drifted across the blue, we got in our car and crossed the green river basins of the Loire and the Arconce, then made our way up into the undulating forested hills. Farm tractors were cutting grass for hay, kicking up clouds of dust. The white Charolais cattle were thirstily roaming their meadows, seeking shade. Buzzards lined the roads, perched on telephone poles, rising with outraged squawks as we passed.

The light began to thin as we wended over the pass on the highest hill and down again toward our destination, chatting excitedly and nervously about our plans for the hives. We reached Sennecey-le-Grand, a tiny village of winding narrow streets, stone houses, and hanging baskets, then parked the car and waited. When M. Robert arrived — short, angular, soft spoken, slightly awkward — it became clear we were nowhere near his hives and we would need to follow him there in the car. Theft is a huge problem in the beekeeping world, with whole collections of hives sometimes going missing. Honey is big business and there are profits to be made despite expensive equipment and bees. Specialist thieves, and even unscrupulous fellow beekeepers, will steal the colonies away by night, almost untraceably.

We climbed back into our car and followed M. Robert for twenty minutes through more villages, past crumbling abandoned farms, over rivers, and back into the hills we had descended on the way to meet him. Arriving at last at a sloping field, we saw a collection of hives at the edge of a woodland surrounded by scrub. The meadow below was a sea of clover stretching away toward the valley, and as we got out of the car we could hear — feel — a hum in the air: unseen things buzzing past our ears, a shadow in the corner of an eye, a dance, spirals. This place was heavy with life.

All three of us zipped ourselves into our beekeeping suits, sealed the seals, and picked our way across the wildflowers and thorns to the hives. Eight or ten hives of different designs sat on piles of breeze blocks or on wooden rails. Some were painted white, some bright greens and blues, some wore the faded labyrinthine lines of natural wood. One stood fully six boxes tall, a virtual skyscraper. The two colonies allocated to use were sited in a corner of the area, their bees coming and going in their gentle evening tasks.

We took our own hive boxes from the boot of our car, and opening the top of one of M. Robert’s hives, we gingerly removed the honeycomb frame by frame. M. Robert checked each batch as we moved them, pointing out the cells filled with young bees, with eggs, with honey. This was truly a patchwork quilt of all that was necessary for bee life, immaculately arranged in concentric circles of golds and oranges and things that wriggled discernibly in the light of the evening.

For an hour we worked, slowly and carefully. As we chatted about bees, M. Robert became more animated, answering our questions happily and candidly and regaling us with his experiences and experiments. He was writing a book about bees, he told us — and he certainly seemed to have enough material to fill chapters.

As we worked, M. Robert puffed gentle cool puffs of smoke from his smoker to calm the bees. Most stayed on the comb hanging from the bars as we moved them from one hive to the next. The rest flew up, circling us, eventually following the sounds and smells of their fellows, and their queen, into our hives, their new home. When we were done, we had moved four brood boxes, with eight bars in each, from his hives into ours, bar by bar. We set our boxes aside, placed roofs upon them, and waited.

Gradually the air around the hives grew less dense as more bees drifted into their new home until all but a few stragglers remained outside. Inevitably, there were a few bees who would remain outside and would not now return home. I hoped they might find their way to another hive, although this was unlikely. When dealing with tens of thousands of bees, there will always be casualties. I did not like the thought, but it is an example of the clash between the emotional ideal and the physical necessity in this smallholder’s life, and something I grapple with daily.

We strapped the boxes of our hives tightly to one another to stop them from sliding apart — this would be alarming, indeed catastrophic, if it happened in our car — then filled their entrances with expanding material to block them. As we moved the hives into the car’s boot, I could feel the vibration from inside, a vibration passed from bee to hive to my body; the thrum of life.

Kieran Jefferson with hives in the car's boot

Hives in the car's boot

We said goodbye to M. Robert, and as we shook hands he promised to answer more questions by telephone. Removing our bee suits at last, we closed the car, mindful of the throbbing coming from the two hives now strapped into the boot. A few straggler bees were flying around the interior and scrabbling at the windows. We got in the car and drove down the hill toward the setting sun, tired, exhilarated, and still nervous.

An hour later, in the dark, we pulled into our farmyard and parked. The bees had quietened, their buzz now just a whisper of wings. Since it was too late to move the hives to their new spot in the meadow, we simply left them in the car, windows cracked open for ventilation. Then we retired inside for a glass of wine and a heavy sleep filled with dreams of honey and transparent wings.

 

That was one month ago now, and all seems well. The day after we collected the bees, we had carefully carried the hives across the meadow and placed them in their new spot: south-facing, sheltered from the wind by a woven-branch windbreak, and protected by fence from our sheep’s curious, clumsy attentions. Over the next few days we watched as the bees performed their circular orientation flights around the hives, and as they gradually went farther afield in their search for flowers and water. Within a week it was clear that these two colonies were stronger than last year’s, with more activity, and more pollen coming into the hive in yellow and orange parcels attached to the legs of the bees — more life, somehow.

We continue to watch our hives carefully from the outside. We have not opened them, following those low-intervention tenets of natural beekeeping. One hive does seem more active than the other, and I have been stung in the face by one of our colony — a reminder to not become complacent, but also a good sign that they are strong. Fierce bees are fierce because they have something to defend, so as I rub the swelling under my eye I am hopeful that the queens are healthy and laying. We shall take no honey this year, nor the next. Possibly never. I would love some honey from these bees, but it is theirs: the product of millions of bee-hours spent foraging, fetching, carrying.

Natural beekeeping: Kieran Jefferson with his hives

Our meadow, filled with clover, is diligently dead-headed by our five sheep so that new blossoms are constantly appearing. That whole field is now abuzz, and not just with our honeybees, but also with butterflies, bumblebees, mason bees, carpenter bees, dragonflies, and weird armored things I cannot name. I feel that the presence of these pollinators — so fascinating, so alien — closes a loop here on our smallholding. Sheep, chickens, bees, fruit trees, vegetable patch, hedgerows, the wild things that scuttle and wriggle, all connect in very real ways, all part of a network. ML and I also strive to be a part of this network, as integral as the others and giving more than we take. We are surrounded by life in astounding quantities, and I am filled by life in astounding quantities.

This year’s summer has been fierce and dry, but tonight the air is so heavy I can almost reach out and grasp handfuls of it. The swallows chase each other in mad circles. There’s a crack in the sky over the horizon, I can feel it: A storm is coming, hot winds from Africa. Overnight it will rain a welcome rain, and tomorrow there will be a thin film of desert sand on everything, beehives included. With the rain, more flowers will bloom. The bees will feast and we will watch them, entranced.

 

Kieran Jefferson is a cook, writer, forager, sheep wrangler, chicken whisperer, and beekeeper. After twenty years as chef in busy restaurant kitchens, he moved with his partner to the countryside of Burgundy, France, and is now in the process of making their smallholding as self-sufficient as possible, growing vegetables and fruits, foraging for wild foods, raising animals for eggs and meat, and keeping bees. He is a member of the Association of Foragers, a partner in the off-grid catering company Forage and Fire, and contributing editor of Locavore Magazine. Find him online at KieranJefferson.com or follow him on Twitter @lidson.

 

photos: Kieran Jefferson

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