Natural Beekeeping

At Westerham Beekeepers, there’s a natural influence from Charles Darwin with his residency, Down House, about 5 miles up the road. 

Illustration by Dan Peterson

Increasingly, the questions we ask ourselves are:

“What would the bees do in the wild?………..

“In what colony nest conditions did they evolve over millennia?……….

“What modern beekeeping practices could be detrimental to the honeybees?……….”

This has driven a group of more natural leaning beekeepers to think about:-

  • How bees and varroa can adapt to living together
  • Using less or no chemical treatments
  • Whether chemical mitacide treatments select in favour of bees that can’t cope with varroa AND for super-tough varroa with high fecundity
  • Insulated living environment (think tree cavity) versus thin-walled hives
  • Propolis “envelopes” for hive hygiene
  • Natural comb versus foundation
  • Locally adapted bees for our foraging conditions and micro-climates
  • Local queen rearing versus imports
  • Insects / micro-organisms being symbionts of the bees
  • Honey versus syrup feeding
  • The role of natural selection in modern day beekeeping

Honeybees adapting to varroa  (or is it the other way around?)

We are inspired by the research of Dr Ralph Buechler, Professor Tom Seeley and an increasing number of surviving colonies of untreated bees in the UK, Europe and North America.  These surviving stocks have adapted to living with varroa, well ahead of the bee scientists trying to work out how….

From evolving research, it seems the bees are employing a cocktail of methods:-

  • Uncapping (impacts varroa reproduction) …..& re-capping (Hygienic behaviour)
  • Brood breaks (interrupting varroa reproduction)
  • Allo-grooming
  • Physically damaging mites
  • Removal of infested pupa (Hygienic behaviour)

Westerham Beekeepers’ Project

The project was started at the end of 2017 to cease using chemical treatments to kill varroa. It is a multi-year project with the ultimate aim of allowing bees and varroa mites to adapt and live in equilibrium without beekeeper intervention.

The first phase of the project during the 2018 season was to reduce varroa without using chemical treatments.  These were cautious first steps as all of us had been told for many years:  “You must treat or your colonies will die”. 

Various techniques were deployed to reduce varroa loads, including queen frame traps, bait combs, varroa shook swarms and mimicking brood breaks.

The second season in 2019 focused on evaluating the success (or not) of our efforts in 2018.  This would include looking for any early signs of adaption occurring and breeding Queens & drones from the most successful stocks.

Season 1 (2018)

A group of 7 beekeepers worked together, across 8 different apiaries with 28 colonies in total.  The sharing of knowledge and experiences was important (and fun!) and this was facilitated by a “chat room”.

The beekeeping plans for the first season were designed to be a low-risk entry to treatment-free beekeeping.  Its foundation was the research led by Dr Ralph Buechler, which showed that colonies with varroa removed using biotechnical techniques outperformed colonies with chemical treatment.   

The techniques deployed to reduce mites included Queen Frame Traps, Varroa Shook Swarms, Brood Breaks and Comb Baiting.  Our first season in 2018 looked like the graphic below, with Sugar Shakes being used to monitor mite drops.

Beekeeper actions were timed to intervene during the swarming season in April/May and then ahead of the winter bees being laid from August onwards.   Thereafter, the bees were left alone for the Autumn, Winter and following Spring. 

Outcome Spring 2019

Through what was a mild winter in 2018/19, mite counts were undertaken where varroa insert boards were left under open mesh floors.   What became clear, was the effectiveness of Queen Frame Traps (QFT) in reducing varroa.   Colonies that had undergone Varroa Shook Swarms (VSS) had higher counts.  Dr Ralph Buechler’s research corroborated these findings.

Of the 28 colonies involved in the project, 26 came through the winter in good shape.  2 colonies had queen issues, probably from late supersedures.  Overall, a very pleasing outcome.

We concluded that this model would allow us to manage our colonies without recourse to chemical miticide treatments.

Identifying varroa resistant traits in honeybees