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Beekeeping Class Notes – Long Old – What is Bee-Centred Beekeeping?

Long Old Verions

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What is Bee-Centred Beekeeping?

I have agonised over this section. It seems like such a simple question but there are so many facets to it and many of them require prior knowledge for them to be fully understood.

Keeping this section concise was a real challenge. And frankly I’m not sure if I’ve succeeded. But here’s my attempt ūüôā

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Bee-Centred Beekeeping is: A philosophy. A set of guiding principles. A set of techniques. A response/movement.

Ok great. But what does that actually mean?

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A philosophy. (what is the philosophy?)
A set of techniques. (what are these techniques?)
A response/movement ( a response to what? what and who makes up the movement?)

These are the questions I hope to answer during the next 2 days.

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Here we have all the different terms I’ve come across that are used to describe Bee-Centred Beekeeping.

Bee-Centred Beekeeping. Also known as:  Natural Beekeeping, Apicentric Beekeeping, Bee-friendly Beekeeping, Holistic Beekeeping, Darwinian Beekeeping, Hapiculture, Bee-Stewardship, Bee-guardianship, and my personal favourite, BeeShepherding.

Treatment-free Beekeeping is also worth mentioning although this only deals with the chemical treatment aspect.


Relational Beekeeping I think is a really interesting one coined by my friend Jacqueline Freeman, author of Songs of Increase and past guest speaker in this course. Relational Beekeeping is beekeeping that is about the relationship we develop with the bees. “One who values kind observation and care over conventional management.” she says “I enjoy being with the bees more than just harvesting honey or medicating and controlling their environment.”

And then of course there’s my favourite – BeeShepherding – which is something I came up with as a kind of parody on Sea Shepherd. I think it beautifully explains what bee-centred beekeepers do. And also, I personally strongly identify with the work of the Sea Shepherd crew. They are not afraid to upset people or break rules in order to protect what they believe is vital to life on earth.

Some of these terms are in general use and others less so.¬†Lots of different names for what is, on the whole, the same thing. That might seem confusing, and it can be. They are self descriptive terms but all of these terms have slightly different meanings. Largely though, they overlap. I’m not going to go into the detail of that now. What I’d like to do here is just look at all of these terms and what they all have in common. How do they overlap? What is the general feeling we get when we read these words? What are the common factors?

(Ask students what their impressions are and write on board)

Lets have a look at some other people’s definitions for bee-centred beekeeping.

Image 5 says – “An approach guided by biology and nature of the honeybee. Non intrusive, low intensity and minimal stress for the bees and the beekeeper.”

So here’s the philosophy and the set of techniques.

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Wikipedia has a section called Natural Beekeeping under its general Beekeeping topic. It says…

“The Natural Beekeeping movement believes that modern beekeeping and agricultural practices weaken beehives. Practitioners of “natural beekeeping” tend to use variations of the top bar hive….” (goes on to describe the TBH and mentions some of those known for introducing it)

Here’s the response/movement. But this somehow suggests its something new. A renaissance I think would be a more accurate term as what we are doing is moving back closer to how beekeeping has always been done throughout recorded history.

Although it seems to have turned into this for me, it wasn’t a response to anything for me in the beginning. It was more an alignment of philosophies (back to nature).

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Natural Beekeeping Australia (Tim Malfroy) says – “Natural Beekeeping aims to provide for the needs of the bee colony above that of the beekeeper. It is a holistic approach based on respect and love for the bee colony.”

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Quote by Adrian Iodice – “The difference between conventional beekeeping and natural beekeeping is like the difference between a monoculture farm producing maximum crops versus a diverse biodynamic or permaculture garden.”

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What is Bee-Centred Beekeeping? by Scott Patrick Sailors of

This is a bit ridiculous as a powerpoint image but I wanted to highlight the blog post as I think it covers most of what I’m trying to say here. Perhaps you can look it up and read it later. It’s called “Why Honeybees Need Bee-Centred Beekeepers” from

??? If doing well for time (Here’s a short video of the author speaking about some of the points made in this article:)

(If video played)
Allowing bees to swarm contravenes the Victorian Apiary Code of Practice ¬†in Australia and is a very contentious issue. But I’ll cover that later.

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I think the most common theme throughout all this is that Bee-Centred Beekeeping is about respect for the bee. As the term bee-centred clearly describes, putting the bee at the centre. It’s about the bee itself as opposed to exploiting bees for honey. That is not to say that bee-centred beekeepers don’t harvest honey, but harvesting honey is not the main focus; the main focus is the welfare of the bee.

So we are guided by the philosophy that the bee comes first. The techniques we use all stem from this perspective. We provide the bees with optimal conditions for the health of the colony.

We provide the bees with homes that mimic, as much as possible, conditions that bees would experience in their natural environment. We provide surroundings that, as much as possible, let the bee express itself as a bee.

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Eric Sevaried – “The chief cause of problems is solutions.” Recognising over-intervention, especially in natural systems, is key to understanding bee-centred beekeeping (and I would say most of the problems we see with the world today).

And here’s where the response/movement comes in.

Beekeeping is a business. The bottom line is profit.
Australian Honey and Bee Products worth 90 million a year (Dept of Agriculture). If we take into account the value to agriculture and economy as a whole (pollination) it puts that figure in the billions. Almonds in Victoria alone (which are wholly reliant on pollination by honeybees) are worth over half a billion dollars… and growing.

As with all business, profit is bottom line, everything else secondary. Business looks for anything that can cut costs or save time. I think its fair to say that any time profit driven industries involve livestock – animal suffers for sake of profit.

Negative effects of industry led commercial practices becoming more and more obvious. Not just with but especially with bees. World waking up to importance of the European honeybee and all pollinators.
European honeybee – canary in the coal mine – the people are listening and want to take action.
A wave of interest/concern risen in response. (A new wave of consciousness?)
Many exciting movements offer real grass roots solutions. For example: Permaculture. SeaShepherd. Climate Justice. Food Sovereignty. Another is Bee-Centred Beekeeping and it’s this that¬†I am inviting you to be part of today.

Somehow, throughout the “developed” world (I prefer to say non-majority world), the commercial practices developed to increase profits are taught to hobbyists as standard. But hobbyists are not constrained by commercial pressures so the techniques being taught as standard are often completely inappropriate. And this is the main motivation behind offering these classes. I want to offer a choice.

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Just going back to Adrian Iodice’s quote –¬†“The difference between conventional beekeeping and natural beekeeping is like the difference between a monoculture farm producing maximum crops versus a diverse biodynamic or permaculture garden.”

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I often use the cage chickens and backyard chickens analogy.

Given the choice, what hobbyist would choose a monoculture or choose to keep chickens in tiny boxes? Why would we adopt the commercial practices when we are not restricted by pressures of commercialism?

The best example of how industry has affected the health of the bees is the wax comb….

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… or as most people tend to call it – honeycomb – though the bees use comb in many different ways, not just to store honey. In my opinion, allowing the bees to build natural comb is at the very core of bee-centred beekeeping. You might be surprised to find out that in conventional beekeeping, the bees are often not allowed to do this.

I’ll try to briefly explain why the wax comb is important. In doing so I will inevitably touch on many of different topics that I will not explain in depth here, but I will try to cover them in depth later.

Bees build comb out of wax which is a living substance they produce themselves from glands on their underside. Comb is used by the bees in many complex ways. For example, they use it to communicate with one another. They leave chemical markers in the wax that lets other bees know many things about the current state of the colony. In addition to this, bees vibrate the comb as a way of communicating information. They also use the comb to raise their young, regulate hive temperature, and regulate microclimates within the colony (temperature and humidity are extremely important to the bees).  This is not an extensive list of the uses of wax comb by the bees but suffice to say, wax comb is at the very essence of a honeybee colony. Like dogs bark, birds fly and cats meow, bees build comb. Building wax comb is just what bees do.

Please have a look at this blog post published by permaculture leaders Milkwood Permaculture – It’s The Birthright Of Bees To Build Comb

But if we want to be a beekeeper in Victoria (and most of Australia) and stay inside of the law, we are not allowed to just let the bees build comb. We are obliged to use movable frames so that we can inspect for disease. This means we force the bees to build their comb in straight columns usually within frames.

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More than this, because its convenient to do so (and commercially, convenience often relates to more profit) many beekeepers today are using plastic foundation and pre-made plastic comb. So we put (or should we say force – they would never choose it for themselves) bees into situations where they are no longer able to build comb in the way they usually would. We can easily see how that is likely to cause problems.

The bees will probably manage – they are incredibly versatile and resilient creatures – but it’s far from ideal.

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Have you heard Jean Liedloff’s Continuum Concept? I think its a really interesting idea that can be directly applied to honeybees and it helps to explain what Bee-Centred Beekeeping is and why I think it’s important.

The Continuum Concept is the idea that in order to achieve optimal development, people need to experience the kind of experiences that they have adapted to during the long process of natural selection.¬†Jeans theory was developed around people, especially in relation to infants, but it seems to me that this same concept would apply to most life forms. A species¬†evolves in countless ways over millions of years to have innate expectations from it’s environment and when it veers too far away from that path too quickly, problems will arise.

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It’s often helpful when describing something to compare and contrast it to something similar . This is how The UK’s Natural Beekeeping Trust describes it. But we’ll cover this in the sections entitled Bee-Centred -vs- Conventional Beekeeping and also in The Beekeeping Spectrum.

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The techniques and to some extent the equipment we use often defines us as bee-centred beekeepers. The techniques, the equipment we use and why we use them is what makes up the bulk of the course.

And so we begin…