John-Berry-on-bees

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John Berry
Response to Janet Luke BayBuzz article, titled The buzz of bees
As a commercial beekeeper with over 40 years beekeeping experience I was very
disappointed to read Janet Luke’s article where she compares commercial beekeeping
with battery hens and sow crates. There are a few beekeepers out there who don't treat
their hives with the care and respect that they deserve, but if anyone treated their
hives as Janet describes they would very soon have no bees at all.
Janet Luke: You live in a hive usually made up of synthetic materials including
plastic and toxic paint.
John Berry: All my bee boxes are made of wood painted on the outside with non-toxic
paint the same as your house. I still use some boxes built by my grandfather over 60
years ago. Some beekeepers do prefer to use plastic frames inside their hives, I do
have quite a lot but for sustainability reasons I have gone back to using wooden
frames.
JL: You are forced to live in a square shaped frame rather than a natural curved shape
like bees build in the wild.
JB: All Langstroth frames are rectangular. In winter and spring when the hives are
not at their full strength the bees naturally cluster in a shape identical to a swarm
hanging in a tree. They simply don't use the parts of the hive they don't need. In the
wild I have seen hives in everything from old rabbit holes to small caves. Bees are
very adaptable and, while they will initially build their combs in a catenary curve
because this shape puts the least stress on fresh comb, as soon as they reach the edges
of the space and can attach the comb to the walls for support, they will build it to fit
whatever space is available.
JL: Your Queen is caged in the lower section of the hive.
JB: Personally I do not use Queen excluders but many beekeepers do. All they do is
prevent the Queen having access to the honey boxes, allowing honey to be harvested
without risk to the queen or losing any brood. Far from being caged, she has ample
room to fulfill her natural functions and can leave by the front entrance of the hive
any time she likes.
JL: Your Queen is squashed and killed each year and replaced, often with an
artificially inseminated Queen. This artificially bred Queen can lack vitality and often
the colony is thrown into chaos in an effort to accept her.
JB: I re-Queen in my hives every two years, after this time she has raised hundreds of
thousands of sons and daughters and often can hardly walk. I think mercy killing
would be a better description. Many of these old queens have already been replaced
naturally by a healthy young Queen and these are of course left alone, however, we do
take this opportunity to re-Queen our hives using Queen cells bred from our most
productive, healthiest and least aggressive hives. When I am not in a hurry I routinely
work my hives around home with no protective gear - you could not have done that
40 years ago. Artificially inseminated Queens in New Zealand would probably
number less than 100 in any given year and their sole purpose is to fix vital genetic
traits such as resistance to varroa. These queens generally change hands for
somewhere between 500 and 1,000 dollars each.
JL: The frames you are forced to live in can contain contaminated wax, or plastic.
This is where you are expected to live, work and raise your babies.
JB: My foundation wax supplier would be horrified to read this statement. He goes to
great trouble and expense testing all his wax to ensure that there is no contamination.
New Zealand health and safety would come down like a ton of bricks if anyone was
using contaminated plastic. My family’s bees have thrived under these appalling
conditions for over 60 years.
JL: Preformed foundation wax is placed into the hives, forcing you to build comb to
the beekeepers requirements rather than your own.
JB: Given the choice, bees will always use existing comb first, foundation wax second
and empty space are very distant last.
JL: Each year your colony is prevented from swarming, thus preventing your species
from multiplying and helping to increase its genetic diversity.
JB: Each year we do our best to stop our hives swarming, mostly but not always
successfully. Swarming is a form of birth and is always debilitating and sometimes
fatal to the hive. Swarms are a public nuisance and worse, now that we have varroa
mites they are a constant source of re-invasion into healthy hives. Feral hives in New
Zealand no longer play any part in genetic diversity. They simply die from varroa.
JL: The majority of your honey is stolen each season and you are fed white sugar to
sustain you until the flowers start blooming again in late spring.
JB: I always endeavour to leave enough honey on the hive to sustain it through
winter. Sometimes, because of adverse weather conditions, this is not always possible
and it is far preferable to feed sugar to hives than to leave them to die. Like humans,
bees really love sugar, in fact they prefer it to nectar. Personally I prefer honey.
JL: Toxic chemical treatments are often added to your home to treat many diseases
that have been introduced from poor beekeeping practices.
JB: Varroa treatments are used in beehives and Janet uses the same treatments as I do.
Varroa is the only thing that is treated for in New Zealand hives and has nothing to do
with poor beekeeping practices. I have voluntarily taken part in many organic trials
and am currently trialling varroa tolerant queens. The sooner we can get away from
any form of treatment the happier I will be both financially and spiritually, but for the
moment they are a reality.
JL: Your colony is trucked around the region and forced to pollinate crops. With
some crops, such as kiwifruit your hive is placed in the middle of a monocrop so you
are forced to feed off this crop even though it is not nutritious for you.
JB: Hives are moved for many reasons. A lot of the higher country in Hawke's Bay
has very limited sources of nectar and pollen in the spring and hives left their all year
round suffer and dwindle. Honeybees especially the Italian strain that we use in New
Zealand are naturally adapted to working mono floral crops, that's why they do such a
good job pollinating crops such as apples. Fair cop on the kiwifruit. Bees really don't
like working this crop as it has no nectar and the pollen is of very poor quality.
Beekeepers are well aware of this problem and extra special care is taken of the hives
while they are pollinating this crop. The reality is that one hive in someone's backyard
is never going to pollinate a commercial orchard and as long as the orchardist treats
the hives with care and is very careful with the spray regime, the pollination of crops
is of mutual benefit to both parties. In parts of Japan and China they pollinate fruit
trees by hand. Incidentally, the average Hawke's Bay orchard totals less than 30
hectares in size, say 500 metres x 600 metres, while the average flight range of a bee
is 3 kilometres, covering an area of over 28 square kilometres - our 'monocrops' are
more like 'minicrops' in terms of the bees' range.
JL: The drones (males) in your hives are often culled, as they provide nothing to the
commercial beekeeper.
JB: Drones are an essential part of the hive but we do attempt to limit the numbers
because they are the primary host for varroa. Some organic beekeepers do deliberately
cull drone larvae as a means of varroa control. They are an exceptional form of
protein for both humans and animals but no we don't spend our time hunting down
drone bees , at the end of the summer the bees kill them all anyway.
JB: The next bit of the article is pretty good apart from the comment about battery
hens and sow crates and so we move on to top bar hives.
JL: A Top bar hive allows: Bees to build their own natural comb to their own
particular dimensions.
JB: All bees have the same dimensions.
JL: The Queen is allowed to move throughout the colony
JB: The Queen is allowed to but she doesn't, she stays in the brood nest like she has
for the last half million years.
JL: Honey is left for the bees, with only the superfluous being removed.
JB: You can do this with any type of hive but if it rains for six weeks in the spring
you'll still probably have to feed it.
JL: Drones are allowed to develop to spread the colony's genetic makeup.
JB: All healthy colonies contain drones over the summer and spreading their genetic
makeup is the only thing drones do.
JL: Queens remain for as long as the colony needs them.
JB: Old failing Queens often lead to the death of the colony. Of course if you let your
hive swarm every year with luck you will end up with a new Queen.
JL: Disturbance of the colony is kept to a minimum.
JB: Cutting combs from the side wall of the hive with a knife is not what I call
keeping disturbance to a minimum but modified top bar hives that contain frames and
other types of horizontal hives such as the long hive are indeed easier for some people
to manage and do have some good points. It should be noted however that bees
naturally have brood at the bottom of the hive and store honey at the top . Living in a
horizontal hive is not their first choice .
JB: In the early days of beekeeping in New Zealand bees were kept in everything
from skeps to apple boxes. This was fine until American foulbrood entered New
Zealand. It became so bad that laws were enacted to control the disease and stop its
spread from one beekeeper to another. Later these laws were placed into a pest
management strategy under the Biosecurity Act with the intention of eradicating
American foulbrood from New Zealand. Unfortunately, we have a few incompetent
beekeepers at all levels of the industry from hobbyist to commercial beekeepers (we
also have many competent beekeepers at all levels) and so American foulbrood is
still with us, but generally on the decline. This is the crux of the problem, what one
beekeeper does can affect the livelihood of all beekeepers within several kilometres of
them. Top bar hives are not apple box hives, but, unfortunately, they are not properly
designed framed hives either. They can be modified quite easily to meet New
Zealand's legal requirements, but as they stand they are illegal. Bitter experience has
shown that not all new beekeepers stay enamoured with thier new hobby. A poorly
managed top bar hive would be impossible to inspect.
American foulbrood is terrible scourge. As a volunteer inspector I have overseen the
destruction of hundreds of hives over the years, some belonging to commercial
beekeepers who should have known better, and others belonging to a hobbyist with
one or two hives who through no fault of their own have had to destroy their beloved
hives. Last year, for the first time in four years, we discovered four infected hives of
our own, all of which had been used in apple pollination. It is not only expensive and
worrying to have to destroy hives, it also leaves a mark on your soul .
John Berry
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