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Prof. Tom Seeley’s work recognised at the 2015 South Devon Beekeepers Convention

By Janet Lowore.

I attended the South Devon Beekeepers Convention (SDBC) on Saturday 17 October where four excellent speakers provided considerable food for thought. I learned much that chimed with the work of Bees for development.

It was interesting to note that three out of the four speakers made reference to Professor Tom Seeley and his work. This was gratifying to hear as we are honoured that Tom Seeley is a Patron of Bees for development Trust. The Professor is one of the world’s leading honey bee ecologists and his work can help all of us be more sustainable beekeepers. As the speaker Derek Mitchell said, most beekeepers read books on beekeeping – which encourages us all to keep doing the same things over and over again – without re-examining whether our actions are good for bees or not. Gareth John in his talk about natural beekeeping told us about the importance of considering the bees’ perspective – and how, having taken this approach, he successfully manages his bees without treating for Varroa.

The reason why Tom Seeley was mentioned so often is because his work stands out – amongst a desert of scientific information about how honey bees live in nature. Yet consider how many thousands of beekeeping books there are!

One person asked why bees in chimneys can survive without Varroa treatment – is it because of the shape of the chimney or something to do with soot? These may be contributing factors but the answer above all else is natural selection – the colonies that did not survive are not there. The process of natural selection is happening across the whole population of honey bees – yet these terms – natural selection, evolution and local adaptation are rare in most beekeeping teaching.

Gareth John mentioned the honey bee population. This is a concept – along with natural selection – which tends to be overlooked. Most beekeepers – not surprisingly – focus on their individual colonies – rather than the wider population as a whole. The reason why it is important to think about the wider population when keeping bees (as opposed to other animals such as hens or pigs) is because mating generally occurs freely between individually owned colonies and other colonies (owned or non-owned) in the locale.  This just does not happen with other livestock.

One of the most original ideas was that proposed by Derek Mitchell who compared the insulation properties of different bee hives with a hollow tree, the bees’ natural home. He contends that the winter cluster is not part of normal (natural) honey bee behaviour but is something they resort to when housed in cold containers. Beekeepers have come to understand the cluster as normal because beekeepers only ever see bees in beehives and not in the wild.

Both Derek Mitchell and Gareth John have abandoned Varroa treatment and instead let nature take its course. But to give bees a helping hand they ensure their bees are housed in containers which allow bees to retain heat and humidity – why? Because the Varroa mite does not like heat and humidity, and bees do.

What is the difference between damp and humidity in a hive? Simple really – damp is the result of water having condensed, whilst humidity is water as water vapour. Or to put it another way – damp is cold wetness whilst humidity is warm wetness. Bees hate the former but need the latter.

What has all this got to do with Bees for development’s approach to sustainable beekeeping in developing countries? We advocate simple beekeeping because this means people with few resources can start beekeeping and earn money. But guess what – simple beekeeping means simple hives – which tend to more closely resemble the bee’s natural home, unlike expensive frame hives. Not only that, but beekeepers in poor countries – more by default than by design – let nature take its course when managing bees, and in doing so allow the powerful force of natural selection to keep their bees healthy. This is a less expensive approach to maintaining honey bee health and so essential for poor communities – but above all else this is by far the most sustainable approach.

To help UK’s honey bees evolve to live with Varroa and to raise money for our charitable work Bees for development Trust is marketing The Bee House – a habitat for honey bees that replicates a hollow tree.

The Bees for development 'Bee House'
The Bees for development ‘bee house’

Tom Seeley says about The Bee House and our work in developing countries: “Throughout the honey bee’s vast range of Europe, western Asia, and Africa, it lives both as managed colonies in man-made hives and as wild colonies in natural cavities. The Bee House sold by Bees for development matches the housing preferences of European honey bees, so by mounting one on a tree or building, you will help sustain the population of wild honey bee colonies in your region.”

I became a Patron of the charity Bees for development because I am passionate about using beekeeping to alleviate poverty. The charity is working with some of the world’s most disadvantaged people, to produce honey and beeswax using local bees. The wonderful thing about this work is that it also helps to protect and maintain healthy honey bees, which are so vital for crop pollination and maintaining the whole environment”. 

Professor Tom Seeley is Horace White Professor in Biology Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, Cornell University, USA

Speakers at the South Devon Beekeepers Convention included:

  • Gareth John of the Natural Beekeeping Trust, on Hands Off for Healthy and Vigorous Bees
  • Simon Croson Winner at Apimondia for Photography, on Beekeeping Through the Camera Lens
  • Dr Rowena Jenkins Cardiff Metropolitan University, on Honey: A Sweet Solution to Infection?
  • Derek and Elaine Mitchell Physics lecturer and beekeeper, on Keeping Bees Warm – Increasing Productivity?

Janet Lowore
October 2015

Janet Lowore is Bees for development‘s Learning and Knowledge Development Officer and co-author of Bfd’s ‘Beekeeping and Development Guide’ series of booklets. She travels widely in Africa promoting and developing Bfd’s projects and programmes and studying and encouraging methods of sustainable honey and beeswax production.

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