Accounts of European beekeeping and land-use
Pulling off the road into a small clearing encourages a concealed dog to bark and a young boy to appear. Beside an oil drum stand of honey under the shade of a parasol, the boy attempts to demonstrate something that I’ve no hope of understanding with only a few basic phrasebook words. From the same nearby trees, a girl then arrives who, with the advantage of a couple more school years than her brother, manages to explain that the honey isn’t for sale. [...]
Beekeepers may now be free to journey once more for their own benefit and profit but the country they travel hasn’t miraculously returned to its once-renowned fertility. Since the revolution, potent agricultural chemicals have continued to be produced and used on what is already heavily-treated soil. Tracts of land extended for collectivised farming – which, when privatised, were notably transferred to those influential within the old state system – have remained large-scale monocultures. Since its 2007 entry into the European Union, Romania’s most industrialised crop, the sunflower, has proven less productive than the equivalent grown elsewhere in the EU: both Bulgaria and France produce large-scale sunflower crops with higher yields from less acreage ...
A question of scale
Only 40 hives are required for an apiary to be officially considered commercial in the UK. Government statistics attempting to identify the scope of UK beekeeping – such as those published in the 2011 document from Northern Ireland’s Department of Agricultural and Rural Development – list over 40,000 beekeepers working across Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales that collectively registered around 271,600 hives. Interestingly, the majority of beekeepers detailed in this report maintained apiaries containing fewer than forty hives: UK beekeepers listed an average 7–8 colonies in Scotland, 5–6 in England and Wales, and as few as 3–5 in Northern Ireland. Beekeeping is practised on such a small-scale in the UK that more than 99% of practitioners are officially classified as ‘hobbyists’. [...]
While few beekeepers would ever try and market pure oilseed rape honey, there are many honeys available that aren’t affiliated with commercial crops, such as chestnut or acacia, which dictate the location of colonies in places away from agricultural land at specific times of the foraging season. The increasing scale of arable and horticultural business in the UK may have encouraged some beekeepers to extend their practices to meet pollination demands, but bees need sufficient sources of forage throughout the season and not just at the zenith of crops in bloom.
A dust drift forming over European fields and meadows has failed to settle without question. Recent incidences of acute honeybee losses, the earliest of which occurred in 1994 across France, have resulted in beekeepers rallying together in protest. [...]
“The main thing has become proof”, intones Hemma. Although many aspects determine bee health, it’s telling that she pinpoints the product that lies covertly within the corncobs gleaned from the field by her son: “I think in some cases it is hard to believe there is no connection between the use of chemicals in agriculture and colony damage. Nevertheless, it’s difficult if you can’t prove it.” Despite remaining diplomatic and measured as we speak about subjects clearly critical to Hemma’s research, at this point she underlines her position by asserting "we would like to prove it”.
A low, reverberant hum resonates across the day’s clear, even sky. As I watch the empty expanse above me, a lone cloud appears beyond the rooftops and, with a thrill, I recognise the sound and then the form of a honeybee swarm. [...]
Once a colony is no longer contained within its hive, the species commonly categorised as domitae naturae no longer behaves as animus revertendi – with an intention to return – and becomes ferea naturae. The domesticated honeybee suddenly appears feral and beyond our control.
The hybrid pool
Trading popular European honeybee subspecies worldwide has arguably impacted our largest effect on the honeybee, and yet through this transportation we’ve paradoxically relinquished most responsibility, and with it control, for the species. It’s common for beekeepers to receive parcels through the post, each containing a mated queen alongside a small cohort of worker bees, all primed and ready to contribute new brood to colonies. Whilst in transit, these bees mirror the lack of ownership of a swarm in flight. [...]
Now that distinct European honeybee subspecies are rarities, the principles of good beekeeping have become all the more complex. In densely-populated areas such as England, where the regular importation of different subspecies has led to the hybridisation of most colonies, any beekeeper wanting to stock a particular import is caught in a recurring cycle of re-queening to avoid the very hybrids that this practice causes.
A place to survive
Far from fields and meadows, a ruby lattice of stems and a snow-white web of silken threads captivate swathes of foreground scenery. The notably wild rather than cultivated flowering plant, rosebay willowherb or fireweed, grows especially well here towards the Arctic Circle. [...]
The common practice of treating varroa-infected colonies with chemical preparations is becoming increasingly controversial, especially since varroa has developed resistance to compounds such as fluvalinate in Apistan and, as a result, is now harder to control. While colonies can weaken through the use of synthetic chemical treatments in the hive, surviving mites become more resilient. The search for means to control varroa is therefore now challenged by an even stronger and more virulent parasite. Sensibly, research is increasingly centred on non-toxic methods of control.
Cities may be more renowned for haute couture than horticulture but urban parks and gardens are increasingly providing more forage variety for bees than common rural spaces, in spite of what little green space is available. [...]
Through our lack of direct involvement in food production, we appear to have relinquished interest in the richness of our primary culture, agriculture. With new public concern for the honeybee and engagement with beekeeping, however, we could connect the value of growing bee-friendly flowers in city gardens with the need to produce bee-friendly crops in the countryside as well.
The life indicator
The honeybee, Apis mellifera, is a species on the cusp of culture and nature. […] If we’re to seriously improve honeybee health and with it our own wellbeing, we need to make the most of this timely opportunity to realise a more interconnected approach to agriculture and ecology.