It started with a question

A certain topic has been brought to my attention on many occasions recently.  After speaking to people at stalls, via email, on the telephone and face to face, this topic has continued to arise and it now needs to get out of my head.

This topic can be controversial, which has led to some interesting, open minded and sometimes heated conversations, and it all started with this simple, almost innocent question.

“Do you have any honey for sale”?

I am a beekeeper, I am not a commercial beekeeper, a conventional beekeeper or a natural beekeeper or any other name given to label a person who follows a set of goals or beliefs.  I firmly believe that I am and therefore anybody else who provides a home to a colony of honey bees is in fact a beekeeper.

This year we have gained several new colonies.  What I mean by this is colonies that are within their first year inside a hive with us, albeit collected by swarm collection, artificial swarm or have changed their landlord.

These colonies became our garden neighbours or non-paying tenants throughout the year, which to us means they are all in different stages of size and cycle of life.   It is often quite a challenge to ascertain how they are doing and if they are feasible to survive on their own accord.

Last year (2014) I removed 30kgs of honey from our hives.  The honey was sold very easily with a demand for even more eagerly seeking my attention; we even managed to keep a couple of jars for ourselves.  We ensured that the colonies had more than enough honey to get them through to this year.  But it got me thinking and asking myself many questions.

How much honey should be left inside the hive for them?
How much honey do they need to survive until next spring?

My usual answers to these questions were swallowed up quickly and needed recalculating by a load of what if questions

What if we have a really mild winter?
What if we have a prolonged spell of bad weather in spring?
What if they hadn’t made enough honey for themselves this summer?

This got me thinking about…

Do some beekeepers unintentionally take too much honey from their colonies?

Instead of answering this question I let it rest within the murky depths of my mind.

This summer we went to a beekeeping convention where one of the speakers, a respected and experienced beekeeper was presenting to a room of non-beekeepers, I sat in and listened to this different perspective.  The talk was holistic yet scientific and presented in such a way that stopped me in my tracks and brought to my attention my previous questions.

Basically what was suggested was…

A honey bee colony will create surplus honey to provide food for their colony to survive situations which include periods of bad weather and dearth of forage.  This we already knew but what was new to me was the proposal that we should dismiss the usual approach which measures honey production on a seasonal and annual basis and adopt the theory that the bees produce honey that may be needed across more than one season or year. Each eusocial organism endeavouring to ensure that the colony survives what nature throws at them, reduced nectar flow, extremes of temperature and weather without the measurement of a 12 month cycle as we understand it.

This leads me to considering that Honey Bees and Humans have different understandings of the term surplus. So there may be enough for them to survive this winter, but what if we have another cold and frozen 5-6 weeks until May like we had a few years ago? Say that was followed by 2 months of low temperatures and then six months where the rain did not let up… Extreme I know, but worth a thought.

Therefore do they ever really have surplus honey at any one time, maybe not, as they may not need the entire surplus to get through the winter and into Spring but may need their hard worked reserves the following year or year after that.

This different perspective has made me stop and think.

I looked back again to when people say Honey bees started having problems, then added when humans started moving more and more colonies of honey bees out from their chosen homes and locations and into man made hives.

I have considered how our climate and weather has changed over the past 200 years, and took into account the different rates that Bees and Humans are evolving and the current argument which debates whether our two species are evolving together at rates that are compatible and sustainable for both to survive?

The melting pot of arguments only scratch the surface and each needs further research and explanation, however, I am now asking myself as an individual beekeeper.

Should I be reviewing the way I keep my bees?…  Where I live the weather doesn’t fit into the seasons as we traditionally would expect it to…

Are we asking too much of them if we take any of their honey at all? Should we take little and often?

So when I am asked this year “Do you have any honey for sale”?

“No, I don’t sorry”… I have to admit the jury is out on this one today. Tomorrow I might know more to inform my final decision, but for now I will take my cup of tea out to the paddock to watch the bees while I ponder further…

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