Can the idea of free-range farming be applied to beekeeping? Yes, say proponents of top-bar hives. Bees in nature build cells that are very different from what they construct in commercial hive boxes. Hive frames are intended to save the bees work and allow them to redirect their energy from building to honey production, but the frames force the cells to a uniform size (which is not natural) with the consequence of producing larger bees who cannot fly as well and have shorter life spans. Sustainable beekeeping should strive to return kept bees to a more natural, and therefore healthier, state.
In this Nonviolent Beekeeping article, Philip Chandler, a proponent of natural beekeeping, suggests three principles for beekeepers to adopt:
- Interference in the natural lives of the bees is kept to a minimum.
- Nothing is put into the hive that is known to be, or likely to be harmful either to the bees, to us or to the wider environment and nothing is taken out that the bees cannot afford to lose.
- The bees know what they are doing: our job is to listen to them and provide the optimum conditions for their well-being, both inside and outside the hive.
The top-bar beekeeping method is a more natural way to keep bees: the bees attach their comb to a slat and build out their colony as they see fit. This results in a smaller honey yield, but the hive is easier to manage, and requires less heavy lifting.
Natural beekeeping tenets remind us that keeping bees is like any other type of animal husbandry, in that the beekeeper is responsible for the external factors surrounding the hives, such as these, listed by a natural beekeeping blog:
- move the hives to better pasture.
- provide water or supplemental feed.
- shelter from the wind.
- shade from the heat.
- protection from pests.
- avoid pesticides and pollution.
and with the external variables being controlled by the beekeeper, the bees should be left to take care of their colony inside the hive themselves, as they do in nature. Top-bar hives may be the best way to enable this natural behavior. See The Barefoot Beekeeper for more information on top-bar hives.