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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Powell

Free-living Bees

This article was first published in Permaculture Issue 114 Winter 2022

Tree bee nest entrance at Blenheim Place. Bees design differently to humans! - Photo Filipe Salbany

Free-living Bees

Definition: Honey bees that choose their own nesting site and live without human intervention.

When considering the natural preferences of the honey bee I am often reminded the well known Wendell Berry quote:

“We have never known what we were doing, because we have never known what we were undoing. We cannot know what we are doing until we know what nature would be doing if we were doing nothing.” 1987

My pathway to understanding the true honey bee, the free-living honey bee, started with reading a Permaculture Magazine article about Warré hives written by David Heaf. I was very knowledgeable about conventional beekeeping from a young age. However, I then had a long break from beekeeping. During those years the beekeeping scene had changed fundamentally. The varroa mite had arrived! Practices such as the chemical treatment of colonies became the norm; the forage available to the bees and other insects had depleted alarmingly, and the use of pesticides had become even more widespread. On resuming my connection with bees, the craft of beekeeping seemed less attractive, but David’s article showed a different, exciting new path that respected the nature of the bee and promised more natural solutions to the problems bees faced. I was connecting to a new paradigm that had already started some 15 years earlier, and so perhaps we had better start there.

Doubts about beekeeping practices started to appear in the mid nineties. Until then beekeepers basically got a free pass in terms of green credentials - what could be greener than keeping bees? The bees pollinate plants and honey is taken in return for providing them with a home.

But behind this simple equation there was a lot going wrong. Industrial practices were increasingly used for the production of honey, and copied by hobbyist beekeepers. Harsh chemical treatments were applied to control a mite called Varroa Destructor, and the deleterious effects of forage depletion, agricultural chemicals and biodiversity loss on bee health were starting to appear. But with pain often comes revelation, and a few beekeepers started questioning their practices. A notable example was Charles Martin Simon and the Backwards Beekeeping movement which started in the 1990’s. The search was on for methods to better support the wellbeing of the honey bee. Varroa Destructor turned out to be Varroa Instructor.

In 1995, after many years of development work, Thomas Radetzki along with others in Germany defined the standards of Biodynamic Beekeeping. These included: colony reproduction only by natural swarming, brood nest combs built naturally by the bees in a unified way, and artificial queen breeding was banned. Probably the best early expression of a hive for Biodynamic Beekeeping was Radetzki’s Golden Hive: a large, single chamber hive, with deep frames in which the bees make their comb. But make no mistake, the honey harvest was still a key objective.

I point out this objective because it will be a recurring theme in this article. The problem with honey is that ‘honey always gets in the way’. Our relationship with bees is deeply entwined with the prospect of honey, in particular the taking of it. But how can you ever know the true nature of the honey bee if you remove their food and replace it with inferior sugar water and the structure nest changes caused by comb removal? This has dramatic implications for the whole biology and functioning of the hive.

Following on from the Golden Hive we see other hive types appearing or perhaps re-appearing. These include the Warré hive and horizontal top bar hive. The aim was hives and processes that were better suited to the natural biology of the bee, but still very beekeeper-friendly, so that honey could be removed. My contention is that honey still got in the way of our understanding of what the bee would do without us.

Around 2012 the Natural Beekeeping Trust initiated the first publication in English of a book about a little known hive from the 1990’s called the Sun Hive. This was designed by Günther Mancke to whose insight into the wholeness of a bee colony and its characteristic form we feel deeply indebted. The hive is an expression of his reverence and high regard for the honey bee. A combination of spiritual, artistic and craft work, the Sun Hive played a huge part in severing the connection between keeping bees and taking honey.

Sun hives in a beautiful Bien House, a place to sit quietly with the bees.

What the Golden hive, Warré hive, Top Bar hive and now Sun hive had inspired was a movement called Natural Beekeeping or api-centric beekeeping, as David Heaf would say. This movement attracted many bee lovers who were not afraid to ask new questions and explore the boundaries of beekeeping.

One of the new paths was tree-beekeeping, an ancient practice of keeping bees in man-made cavities inside trees that lasted for almost 1000 years in eastern Europe. With the advent of api-centric beekeeping this beautiful craft experienced something of a revival, starting in 2014. But, whereas traditional tree beekeeping involved the production of honey and other hive products, and is still practised in this way in in a small part of the Urals, the new Western practitioners' focus was on bee "rewilding", on creating environments for studying what we now call free-living colonies. Tree beekeeping also encompassed log hives in trees and notable practitioners, such as Matt Somerville (UK) and Michiel Verspuij (IRL), Michael Joshin Thiele (USA), have installed hundreds of log hives in trees. The hives, or nests as we call them in free-living bee circles, often fill within weeks during swarming season, and once the bees are in residence they are not disturbed.

What the tree beekeepers in the UK and Ireland began to discover, however, was an extensive backbone of free-living bees that were already thriving in natural cavities, particularly in ancient forests where oaks older than 500 years still provided suitable nesting habitats for honey bees. Exceptional examples include Blenheim Palace where over 70 colonies of mostly native black bees - thought to have been a lost race - have been monitored over the last three years by Filipe Salbany, and Boughton House where over 50 nests are monitored by Joe Ibbertson. Similarly, but not as extensively, free-living colonies were also found in Europe, with France being a notable exception. The work of Adam Wright and his team at Custos Apium by La Revasserie has revealed that freeliving bees are doing very well in Central France. As Filipe said in a recent Guardian article - “Nobody knew they were there!”. Even to this day you will find honey bee researchers and entamologists in the UK who claim they do not exist - this is completey false.

Filipe Salbany Inspecting a nest - Photo Jonathan Powell

This departure from natural or api-centric beekeeping has finally severed the honey connection that - in my view - made it almost impossible for us to appreciate the honey bee's true, majestic and wild nature. For the first time we are learning that:

When bees have enough honey and enjoy food security thanks to no-one robbing their vital food, they reduce their foraging efforts and turn their attention to hygienic behaviour in the hive, keeping themselves healthy and their nest pristine.

Bees living in trees or tree like structures benefit enormously from the thermal mass as well as insulation. Trees provide a stable temperature that is warm enough in winter to create a moist anti-microbial atmosphere infused with propolis resin, thus preventing the growth of mould pathogens typical of thin-walled box hives on the ground.

Bees at the nest entrance of an Oak Tree - Photo Matt Somerville

There are interplays between bees and microbes, micro-organisms, trees, birds and plants which together make a local ecotype that quickly shapes the genetics of the bee to work in balance with nature.

For the bees’ full natural biology to function, they need and select significantly smaller nests than honey-seeking humans would choose, often only 18-24 litres in the UK. This has benefits for bee health including the natural control of the Varroa mite. Bees in such small nests consume far less nectar than "managed" and "driven" bees, which directly benefits other local pollinators.

Bees tend to form clusters of widely spaced colonies. The spacing of the colonies appears to be a function of the nesting opportunities and food resources, and this spacing affords many health benefits to the bees.

Bees have lived in this tree for more than 30 years - Photo Jonathan Powell

They exist in self-sustaining colonies and can occupy locations for many decades.

In short, many of the processes and behaviours we see in free-living colonies mean that free-living bees are in great health , not suffering the multitude of challenges of 'beekeeper managed' colonies. There are in short a genetic power house. It is striking how interconnected all the elements of a nest are - akin to a tightly woven multi-dimensional mesh of environmental and biological processes and unseen forces. There is still a lot to discover, which is amazing considering that the honey bee is one of the most researched insects in the world.

Beekeepers might ask, if you take away the keeping part of bees, traditionally called Apiculture, what’s left when it comes to human bee relationships? My answer is Apiology: ‘the scientific study of bees, especially honeybees’ (Websters Dictionary)

In Apiology we see the position of the honey bee among its brothers and sisters in the full spectrum of bee races. No longer an agricultural animal and an alien to nature, it is restored to its rightful place that took 90 million years to shape. For us, there is a much richer and more rewarding interaction that may involve:

  • Bee-lining - finding wild colonies

  • Study - diligent non-intrusive observation

  • Farming with nature - At Pertwood Organic farm free-living colonies form an integral part of the farm

  • Conservation of habitats

  • Spiritual connection - the heart naturally resonates to bees in trees. We experience a deeper connection.

This article is not suggesting that apiology should replace apiculture. It's purpose is to show that free-living bees provide a true touch stone to both conventional and natural beekeeping. For the first time we can test the excellence or genuineness of other ways of being with bees against the true experts - the bees themselves. This will alter the designs of hives, their spacing, their environmental impact in relationship to other pollinators, and new ways of supporting health. Nests for bees

A modified layens hive by that adopts many features found in free-living bee nests. - Photo Paul Honigmann

A tree nest designed only for bees and made from pallets by Jonathan Powell -

Bee House a negative carbon nest made from hempcrete, featuring high thermal inertia and insulation, rough internal walls for propolis and small volume.

For me, the revelation of the free-living honey bee is how blind I have been to the true nature of the bee. Yes, honey got in the way for much of my life also.


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