When asked to imagine a beekeeper, most people would probably imagine someone in a head-to-toe white outfit resembling an ill-fitting spacesuit, complete with a hat and veil, walking around a field of sturdy wooden boxes. rummages. And most of the time, that image would be correct.
But some beekeepers do it very differently.
Piotr Piłasiewicz currently cares for eight honeybee colonies living high in the pines and spruces of the Augustów Jungle in northeastern Poland. He is a founding member of Bractwo Bartne – the Tree Beekeeping Brotherhood – an organization dedicated to preserving a tradition practiced in Central Europe since the Middle Ages.
Their approach to beekeeping focuses on the bees themselves rather than the profit they derive from honey. “Who brought the bees to the ground? People did that. We [the brotherhood] trying to adapt our behavior to this species, rather than adapting the species to our needs,” says Piotr.
For Piotr and his team, their relationship with the bees is reciprocal. They make hollows in trees and build hives for wild bees to nest in, and visit regularly to prevent unwanted visitors, such as hornets or birds, from moving in before the bees. In return, they occasionally harvest honey, but only if the bees have a surplus. “We take just enough for a thank you for what we do,” says Piotr.
The fraternity is part of a growing community of beekeepers, researchers and conservationists across Europe promoting a hands-off approach to honeybee breeding. They regard bees as wild, not domesticated, and try to respect the ecology of the insects as much as possible.
A natural home for bees
“The hives I use are designed to mimic what bees want in the wild,” says Matt Somerville, a carpenter from the South West of England and founder of Bee Kind Hives. He travels to farms and gardens in the UK and sets up what he calls ‘freedom baskets’: hollowed out logs about a meter long and 45 cm in diameter, which are kept high in trees. They are a far cry from the Langstroth hive, the well-known rectangular multi-frame box designed for easy honey extraction.
Matt Somerville will attach one of his trunk-based “freedom baskets” to the side of a tree in April 2020. “The cherry tree in the background lived off the bees,” he recalls. (Image: Matt Somerville)
He uses a chisel to roughen the inner wall of the hive, allowing the bees to coat them with propolis, a sticky resin made from wax and bee saliva. Naturally antibacterial, propolis plays a key role in keeping bee colonies healthy. The smooth walls of a Langstroth hive make it difficult for bees to exhibit this hygienic behavior.
Somerville covers the top of the hive with an insulation layer to keep the bees warm in winter. This is important, he explains, because a well-insulated hive means the bees use less energy and are more likely to survive in the current ‘depleted flower kingdom’.
Finally, he hoists a few meters up into the trunk of a suitable tree and secures the beehive with straps. Near the canopy and away from the moist ground air, it’s like a tree hollow in which wild bees typically nest. All that’s left is to wait for a swarm to come and make it their home.
A bee laden with pollen and nectar enters a “freedom hive”. The bees have filled the cracks in the wood with propolis, a sticky resin with antibacterial properties. (Image: Matt Somerville)
Once a colony enters, they are largely left to their own devices. “I’m not intervening,” Somerville says. “They’re not my bees.”
This is in stark contrast to modern beekeeping, which has become a very practical occupation over the past three decades. The rapid loss of forest habitats and food resources has made honeybees more vulnerable to biological threats, especially parasites. Beekeepers regularly check colonies for parasites and apply a range of chemical treatments, fearing otherwise the bees will be exterminated.
What happens to honey bees?
Managed bee colonies — kept in man-made beehives to harvest honey — die in huge numbers every year. According to a recent study, beekeepers in the United States lost an estimated 46% of managed bee colonies in 2020-21. The latest data from beekeepers in 35 European countries for 2018-2019 indicates an overall loss of 17% of colonies.
The causes are complex, but one of the main culprits is the parasitic Varroa mite. Varroa attack and feed on honeybees, weakening their immune systems and infecting them with viruses. Disease builds up over time and often kills the entire colony.
It’s like the perfect storm. Less food, contaminated food, more pathogens. This really weakens the colonies.
Margarita Lopez-Uribe, associate professor of entomology at Penn State University
Bees also don’t have enough to eat, explains Margarita Lopez-Uribe, an associate professor of entomology and pollinator health specialist at Penn State University in the US. Bees feed on nectar and pollen from flowers, but are struggling as forests and meadows of biological diversity have been replaced by monoculture farms. “We have converted land to agriculture on a large scale,” Lopez-Uribe says.
To make matters worse, the food available to bees is often contaminated with pesticides. The use of neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides known to cause confusion, paralysis and death in bees, is on the rise worldwide, despite an EU ban in 2018. to renew the chemicals for the next 15 years.
“It’s like the perfect storm. Less food, contaminated food, more pathogens. This really weakens the colonies,” says Lopez-Uribe.
Let bees be bees
There is some evidence that less intervention may help honeybees adapt to some of these threats.
Researchers have documented numerous wild or “wild” colonies that can tolerate Varroa mites without chemical treatment. A study published last year reported more than 1,300 sightings of significant wild honeybee populations surviving over the course of six years in the urban environment of Belgrade, Serbia.
“If you leave bees in a natural state, they’re going to develop different mechanisms to deal with mites,” Lopez-Uribe says.
This wax comb, taken from one of Somerville’s “freedom hives”, was built by a colony of bees that did not survive the winter. “Other bees that found this hive took advantage of the honey,” he says. (Image: Matt Somerville)
To test this, some scientists are experimenting with honeybee “rewilding” projects by allowing bees to reproduce as they would in the wild, allowing natural selection to take place. One such scientist is Delphine Panziera, specialist in honeybee pathology and coordinator of the National Reference Laboratory for bee diseases at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
Panziera says some bees will succumb to varroa without treatment, but those with mite-tolerant genetics that survive pass their traits on to their offspring, and each new colony gradually becomes more tolerant of the mite. This is sometimes referred to as “Darwinian Beekeeping”.
“The genes that are really important for climate change adaptation and parasites will be very highly selected in those wild colonies because they don’t get help from beekeepers,” Panziera says.
Finding the sweet spot
In Augustów, the Tree Beekeeping Brotherhood sees no need to step back at all.
First, the tradition of beekeeping trees, including making products such as mead from the honey they collect, has deep roots in the culture of the region. The word for “tree beekeeping” in Polish – bartnictwo – even has a separate origin from the word for conventional beekeeping – pszczelarstwo. In 2020, the practice was inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
Piotr Piłasiewicz uses a gouge to hollow out a beehive. New hives are made in the winter so that they can be hung in trees in the spring in the “swarm season” when bee colonies look for new nesting sites. (Image: Bractwo Bartne)
Honeycomb collected from a tree basket. Many in the wild beekeeping community don’t harvest honey at all, preferring to leave it for the bees. (Image: Bractwo Bartne)
Ericas Augustievisius, a Lithuanian meadery owner, demonstrates making mead from honey at the annual beekeeping harvest festival held in Augustów last year. (Image: Bractwo Bartne)
In addition, Piłasiewicz regularly visits his colonies to assess their health. If for some reason they can’t make enough honey to get through the winter, he gives them some honey from his stash.
For him, the pressure that honeybees face is too great to leave everything to natural selection: “The bees live in a bad environment, which we have created. We have changed the forest structure; we took from them the source of food they gather. Why the hell can’t we feed them?”
Despite their differences, both Piłasiewicz and Somerville share a respect for the honeybee that they feel is lacking in commercial honey farms. “Modern beekeeping is based on an industrial model from the Victorian era. It’s the same way we treat cows and pigs – like cattle,” says Somerville. “They deserve our respect.”