Tuesday 31 December 2013

Last Podcast of 2013

Those of us in the northern hemisphere are missing the sounds of our bees, so here is a recording I made in Spring 2011, followed by a complete recording of The Bee Song, written for this podcast by Lara Conley.

You can find more of Lara's music here https://myspace.com/laraconleymusic 

This is a video I shot of her the first time I met her in Totnes - http://youtu.be/8AvA1k4obO0

Check out this episode!

Wednesday 13 November 2013

Restoring the Balance to Beekeeping

Honeybees cannot be domesticated in the sense that cows or pigs or sheep have been. They are essentially unchanged by man, despite many attempts to breed them to suit our needs. Their unique mating behaviour and reproductive cycle ensure that diversity and adaptability will continue to be the dominant themes in their evolution.
As I see it, our main job as bee keepers - or bee guardians, or bee herders - is to be observant and to understand our bees to the best of our ability. We cannot fully enter into their world, but we have the opportunity to gain a greater appreciation of it. And once we begin to understand how deeply embedded they are within the natural world, and what sensitive indicators they are of disturbances in the natural world, we may find ourselves unable to image a functional planet without them.
So before launching headlong into the keeping of bees, I would urge you to take a deep breath and consider what it is that really interests you about them, as this will give you some important information about how best to proceed. An hour or two of careful deliberation at this stage could save you weeks or months of time, trouble and money.
To help you decide where you stand on the 'beekeeping spectrum', I have identified six types of bee keeping, three of which fall on the 'conventional' and three on the 'natural' side:
  • Honey farming: production-focused, intensive management of bees for maximum honey yield or for migratory pollination. Typically involves routine sugar feeding and prophylactic medications, including antibiotics and miticides. Queens are usually raised using artificial insemination and replaced frequently, while drones are suppressed and swarming is prevented by the excision of queen cells or by splitting colonies. Usually involves some movement of hives, sometimes over large distances. This is a business run for profit, but like other agricultural work, there will be good years and bad.
  • Sideline beekeeping: a smaller-scale, part-time version of honey farming. The principal aim is profit, but your livelihood may not entirely depend on it.
  • Association beekeeping: a miniature version of commercial or sideline beekeeping, as promoted and taught by most bee keepers' associations. Usually the intention is still to produce the maximum amount of honey, but from fewer hives and not necessarily for financial reward. Queens are often marked and clipped and in most other respects the methods ape those of the honey farmer.
  • Balanced beekeeping: the emphasis is on bee welfare and facilitating the natural behaviour of bees, with the intention of providing conditions in which bees may find their own solutions. Restrained taking of honey and other bee products only when plentiful and appropriate. Beekeepers may or may not use mite treatments or medications, but if they do, they use non-toxic, natural substances that support bee health rather than target specific disorders. Queens are open-mated, splits optional and swarming may or may not be managed.
  • Natural beekeeping: similar to 'balanced beekeeping', with the emphasis on 'do-nothing' approaches. Little or no management is attempted, and rarely are splits made or queen-rearing conducted beyond what the bees do themselves. Hives are rarely opened; routine inspections are discouraged; honey is rarely taken; other hive products barely at all.
  • Conservation beekeeping: bees for their own sake; no honey taken and no inspections, treatments or feeding. Bees do as they please and take their chances with the weather and forage. Bee-friendly plants may be incorporated in a conservation-style scheme, which may include other pollinator species.
While I have shown these as distinct categories, they should really be thought of as segments of a continuous spectrum, from most to least invasive and from most to least 'production-focused'. It is also possible - at least, in theory - for a honey producer to operate apiaries along 'Darwinian' lines - with no medication and relying on survivor stock - thus closing the circle.
You may notice that in the above list I have not mentioned any particular types of hive. While it is true that certain designs are more suitable for specific applications, it is possible to be a 'balanced beekeeper' using a conventional frame hive, and in France there are honey farmers using Warré hives - a vertical variant of the top bar hive, which was designed for honey production.
It would also be perfectly possible to be an 'interfering' beekeeper in a top bar hive, so I don't think it is useful to categorize beekeepers purely by the shape of their hives or even their personality traits: it is their intention and attitude toward their bees that matters.
The origins of 'natural beekeeping'
Some of you who have read my books and are familiar with my methods may be wondering why I appear to be creating a category of beekeeping - apparently out of thin air - just as we had become used to using the term 'natural beekeeping'. Where did this 'balanced beekeeping' thing come from?
The term 'natural beekeeping' was first (to my knowledge) openly discussed at a meeting of about a dozen interested people at the offices of Bees for Development in Monmouth in 2009. We were trying to find a generic term for what we were all attempting - in slightly different ways - to achieve, and to differentiate ourselves from the conventional methods as widely taught in the UK and elsewhere. While we recognized the paradox hard-wired into the term, we also felt that it encouraged discussion and drew attention to the distinctions we were keen to make.
Ever since that meeting, there has been an on-going discussion about what 'natural beekeeping' actually means - given that no keeping of bees is entirely natural - and just how natural we should be, and what is unnatural about conventional methods. This conversation has generated further distinctions and it has become clear to me that some 'natural' beekeepers have come down - at least tentatively - on the 'no interventions' side of the fence, preferring to observe bees and keep them in containers not designed to be opened very often - or at all, in some cases - while others want to keep bees in a way that still allows for some measure of swarm control, compliance with inspection requirements and with the possibility of the removal of some honey when plentiful.
In short, 'natural beekeeping' seems to have shifted towards the 'conservation' end of the spectrum and created a gap between itself and the 'amateur beekeeping' promoted by conventional bee keeping associations. This is the gap in which, I suggest, 'balanced beekeeping' happily sits.
Balanced beekeeping: bridging the gap
Balanced beekeeping, therefore, allows for the use of a wide range of equipment and methods, while tending to prefer the 'natural' over the conventional. It is for people who want to do more than just observe bees: they want to be bee 'keepers' rather than just bee 'havers'; they want a more intimate relationship with their bees than is allowed by never opening the hive - while understanding that this should always be done mindfully and not too often. They want to keep healthy bees without resorting to medications, but they also are happy for the bee inspector to call occasionally and check their charges for signs of disease. If a hive becomes bad-tempered and begins to cause a nuisance to neighbours, they are willing and able to replace the queen if appropriate, or move the hive to another location. When combs become black with age and propolis, they can easily remove them. If a hive becomes honey-bound, they can rectify the problem. They know how to raise a few extra queens - should it become necessary - and they can tell when a colony needs some extra feeding and can provide it: they recognize that beekeeping is both a science and an art and constantly strive to improve their skills.
So the point of balance is somewhere between doing too much and doing nothing; being over-controlling and letting nature take its course; being a bee-farmer and a bee-watcher.
I would suggest that the three principles I outlined in The Barefoot Beekeeper fully apply to this sector and there is still no need for a 'book of rules' - everyone can decide exactly where the balance is for themselves.
Balanced beekeeping is about working with the natural impulses and habits of the bees, respecting the integrity of the brood chamber, leaving them ample honey stores over winter and generally arranging things in order to cause their bees as little stress and disturbance as possible, while being willing and able to intervene when the bees need help or when their activities are causing a nuisance to others.
Compared to the more 'honey-focused' approaches, more time is spent observing the bees and some operations may need to be performed a little more often: honey harvesting, for example, is likely to be done by taking smaller amounts over a period of weeks or months, rather than the typical all-at-once, smash-and-grab raid practised by honey farmers and most amateurs.
We do not aim to extract every possible drop of honey from a hive. We respect the bees' need to eat their own stores - especially over the winter - and regard sugar syrup as an inferior supplement to be given only when bees are short of their own food, due to prolonged bad weather or other causes.
Supporting other species
Our natural allies are gardeners, smallholders and especially those who understand and use the principles of permaculture, which are also the principles of nature. A mutually beneficial and sustainable relationship with our bees must be based on such a truly holistic approach: we need to learn more about how the colony works as a complete, living entity and the manifold ways in which it interacts with its environment, with us and with other living things. For too long we have been locked into an un-balanced, old-fashioned, reductionist approach, dealing with bees as if they were mere machines created solely for our benefit, instead of highly-evolved, wild creatures, with which we are privileged to work.
I believe that keeping bees for honey should be small-scale, local and carried out in the spirit of respect for the bees and appreciation of the vital part they play in our agriculture and in the natural world. I disapprove of large-scale, commercial beekeeping because it inevitably leads to a 'factory farming' mentality in the way bees are treated, handled and robbed. I believe we should think of honey much less as a food and much more as a medicine, and adjust our consumption accordingly. We should not expect to see supermarket shelves piled high with jars of honey from around the world, as if it were jam or peanut butter. Honey should be valued as the product of innumerable bee-miles and the assimilation of priceless nectar from myriad flowers.
An important aspect of 'balance' is to ensure that our activities as beekeepers do not have a negative impact on other species. Honeybees evolved to live in colonies distributed across the land according to the availability of food and shelter. Forcing 20, 50, 100 or more colonies to share the territory that - at most - half a dozen would naturally occupy is bound to lead to concentrations of diseases and parasites. Unnaturally large concentrations of honeybees can also threaten the forage and thus the very existence of other important pollinating insects, such as bumblebees, mason bees and the many other species that benefit both wild and cultivated plants. This means that we do not over-stock any location and we create habitat for other species, which may take the form of 'bee hotels' or simply piles of old wood and leaves. Anything that is done to improve the environment for honeybees will also be beneficial to other pollinators.
Having a deep appreciation of the interconnectedness of all living things, and an understanding of the impact our own species has had and is still having, leads us inevitably to the conclusion that we have a responsibility towards everything that walks or crawls or slithers on the earth or beneath it, or that swims in the sea or flies in the air, and shares this precious planet with us. As bee keepers, we have a special responsibility to also be 'earth-keepers'.
Philip Chandler is a writer and teacher with a special interest in bees and beekeeping. In 2007 he wrote and published The Barefoot Beekeeper, which laid the foundations of what has become known as 'natural beekeeping', using simple hives and 'light touch' management.
His web site - http://www.biobees.com - contains much free information and hosts the popular Natural Beekeeping Network Forum.
His latest book, Balanced Beekeeping I: Making a Top Bar Hive is available from Lulu.com

Saturday 21 September 2013

Findhorn: a conversation with 'feral elder' Craig Gibsone

Part 2 of my Findhorn series (there may be a Part 3 as well) is a conversation with long-term Findhorn resident and self-declared 'feral elder', Craig Gibsone. 

We cover a lot of territory in this interview, including bees, permaculture, war and peace, life and death. And the 250-year flood that may wipe Findhorn off the map...

Check out this episode!

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Findhorn: a conversation with co-founder Dorothy Maclean

I recently visited the Findhorn community, near Inverness, to help them build a top bar hive and talk about natural beekeeping.

The first voice is that of 92-year-old Dorothy Maclean, the only survivor of the original group of three  - the other two being Eileen and Peter Caddy - who started what became the Findhorn community just over 50 years ago. You can find out more about Findhorn on their website - findhorn.org

Today's podcast is an edited version of my conversation with Dorothy and two of her carers, Marilyn and Jo.

I also recorded conversations with two other long-standing members of the community - Craig Gibsone and Kijedo - which will form either one or two future podcasts, depending on how the editing pans out.

Check out this episode!

Wednesday 14 August 2013

Inner Beekeeping

Recorded at the 2013 Friends of the Bees unConvention.

'Inner Beekeeping' is about the way our interactions with bees affects us internally. Everyone's experience may be different, yet there is a lot of commonality.

A wide-ranging discussion, unfortunately with some intrusive background noise at times.

Check out this episode!

Monday 8 July 2013

Kate Bradbury on wildlife gardening, urban foxes, bumblebees and hedgehogs

Kate Bradbury is well known to UK gardeners from her contributions to Gardeners' Question Time and as the former editor of Gardeners' World magazine. Her new book, The Wildlife Gardener, is available from Kyle Books - http://www.kylebooks.com/display.asp?ISB=%229780857831576%22

Kate gave a talk in May 2013 at Sharpham House, near Totnes in South Devon at an event organised by Friends of the Bees and PUPA and co-sponsored by the Royal Entomological Society.

Check out this episode!

Thursday 6 June 2013

Interview with Brigit Strawbridge at Bumblebee Farm

Brigit Strawbridge will be remembered by many from the TV series 'It's Not Easy Being Green'. More recently, she has spent much of her time writing and talking about wild bees, especially bumblebees.

This year, she is moving back to Cornwall, to the farm that was her family home and the hub of the TV series, with the aim of turning it into an educational centre, where people will be able to learn not only about bees, but also other country crafts and skills. 

I visited Brigit at her farm and she spoke to me about her plans.

Bumblebee Farm web site - http://bumblebeefarm.co.uk

Brigit's blog - http://beestrawbridge.blogspot.co.uk

Check out this episode!

Wednesday 27 February 2013

Beekeeping for Free?

When people consider keeping bees, their first port of call is usually the local bee keepers association. Listening to the jargon-filled chat among the 'old hands', it turns out that buying one's ticket into this arcane world is not cheap: the glossy catalogues full of shiny equipment are beguiling, but the price lists can come as quite a shock. Many are put off the idea at this point.

The next hurdle is the weights they expect you to lift and carry - at least 25 kilos from ground level - not something to try if you are lightly built and not used to weight-lifting.

Another obstacle that may kill enthusiasm is the need for storage space. Using conventional hives, you cannot fail to accumulate all kinds of 'extras' the 'old hands' forgot to mention at that first meeting.

But it is perfectly possible to become a beekeeper without laying out a lot of cash, without body-building and with no need to fill your garage with yet more 'stuff'. You just have to ignore the glossy catalogues and take up what has come to be called 'natural beekeeping'.

All you need is a simple - probably home-made - hive, a hat and a veil, an old shirt and the agreement of the people who share your living space. It doesn't matter whether you are a town or a country dweller, as long as there are flowering plants nearby from early spring onwards. In fact, bees often do better in gardened, urban areas than in the 'green desert' of modern, industrial farm land.

The essentials are simple: a box with sticks across the top, to which bees attach their comb. There are many variations on this theme and all have the guiding principle of simplicity of construction and management. There is no need for any other equipment or storage space outside the hive. Building a top bar hive is no more difficult than putting up shelves and can be done using hand tools and recycled wood.

Natural beekeeping really is 'beekeeping for everyone' - including people with disabilities - as there is no heavy lifting once your hives are in place. For the bees, they offer weatherproof shelter and minimal disturbance, thanks to a 'leave well alone' style of management.

Whether you approach it from the point of view of conservation, entomology, crop pollination or simply a love of honey, beekeeping is an engaging pursuit and a fascinating window on the natural world.

So, if you want to keep bees, build yourself a hive before the swarm season, and you could be tasting your own honey by the end of the summer!

Free plans for building a top bar hive are available from the author's web site at biobees.com, where you will also find a busy and friendly support forum.

Friday 15 February 2013

Dr Vandana Shiva speaking in Totnes Civic Hall, introduced by Satish Kumar

Dr. Vandana Shiva's talk, intruduced by Satish Kumar, was given in front of a capacity audience at Totnes Civic Hall in 12th February 2013. The event was presented by Schumacher College and Transition Town Totnes.

Vandana talks about the meaning of 'development' and its effects on its recipients, who so often become its victims: the so-called 1960's 'Green Revolution' and its deleterious effects on soil quality; the 270,000 suicides of Indian farmers as a result of their exploitation by Monsanto; the excessive deaths from cancer in the Punjab; the true meaning of soil productivity; shrimp farming and how it was once a complementary crop of rice growing, but became another unsustainable monocrop though inappropriate aquaculture; the destruction of jobs and communities; the deception of genetic engineering and the resilience of local seed varieties; the gluten allergy problem; plant patenting; why 'golden rice' is a GM con trick based on illegal trials and ignores richer sources of vitamin A; how deficiencies are created deliberately to make markets; food as the currency of life; the vital importance of micro-organisms to soil health; GM cotton and how Indian farmers were deceived by Monsanto; the wasteful 'war economy' agricultural system and how it caused most of the destruction on the planet including greenhouse gases;  how wartime explosives and poison gases were re-purposed as fertilizers and pesticides; how they made it illegal to keep your own seed; how 'plant development' destroyed flavour; how 'freshness' ceased to be a virtue; how reclaiming seed from the corporates is vital to food security; how we would all be better off without GM; seed freedom and biodiversity; seed exchanges; more people on the land; and bees!

Check out this episode!

Thursday 31 January 2013

Interview with Valerie Solheim of healingbees.org

It is the last day of January 2013 and my resolution to do more recordings has again been overtaken by other priorities - but here we are again with another Barefoot Beekeeper podcast.

It's been an exciting couple of days, with two of the UK's biggest retailers - B&Q and Wickes - announcing that they would be removing garden products from their shelves that contain neonicotinoids - and then a third big company - Homebase - announced that they were following suit.

UK supermarkets are now under seige by campaigners eager to press home their advantage and persuade them to take more garden pesticides off their shelves, so I think we have more good news to look forward to.

There was a session yesterday of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee on pesticides, in which Bayer's representatives gave a rather lame performance, I thought. They looked dazed and confused by questions they seemed ill-prepared for - and then Professor Vyvyan Howard of Ulster University followed up with a calm dismissal of most of their arguments, leaving MPs - at least it seemed to me - in a position of little doubt when it comes to deciding which way to go on the neonicotinoids issue.

So, today's podcast is an interview I recorded in Denver, Colorado, last November with Valerie Solheim, who has some very interesting experiments running with bees.

This interview will be of particular interest to people who have considered the possiblility that there is more to hive location than just choosing a level piece of ground. Valerie suggests that we may need to take account of 'geopathic stress', as her findings suggest that the health of bees may be influenced by forces of which we currently have little knowledge.

I think there is still a lot of work to be done in testing her theories, and I hope some of you will be inspired to carry this forward. Valerie has just published a book about her work called The Beehive Effect, and you can read part of the first chapter at her web site - healingbees.org 

Please bear in mind that when I made this recording, I had already been speaking for over 2 hours and the ultra-dry air had given me a sore throat and an attack of the sniffles, which I have tried to suppress in this recording - but not entirely successfully.

Right at the end is a little more all-female close-harmony singing, recorded immediately after the interview in the hotel bar. 

Check out this episode!

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Learning From Bees: a philosophy of natural beekeeping

Need a good read about bees while yours are tucked up in their cosy hives for the winter?

I have just published a new book - only about 23,000 words this time - which is available as a paperback and in all regular ebook formats, including Kindle.

Here's the Contents page, just to whet your appetite:


5 Bees and Flowers: a Perfect Partnership

11 The Nature of Bees

23 What is Natural Beekeeping?

31 Balanced Beekeeping

38 The Importance of Drones

42 Do You Really Want to Keep Bees?

47 The Beatrix Potter Syndrome

55 The Bigger Picture

60 Sustaining The Honeybee

66 Asking Questions

69 Advice to Inventive Beekeepers

71 Inner Beekeeping

76 Learning From Bees

80 Ten Things You Can Do