In Conversation with....Jonathan Powell
Listen to the full interview on irishbeekeeping.ie
This was a fuller conversation than I could fit in here, so this is an edited version of our chat. For the full, unedited version with all of the juicy bits fully intact visit FIBKA’s website. Click on Info & Resources - Podcasts. I’m hoping to do it like this every month from now on, so you’ll get to enjoy the chats either by reading or listening, or both!
This month I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak with a very different style of beekeeper. One who thinks profoundly and connects on a deeper level to the true needs of honey bees. When we beekeepers say that we love our bees, I truly believe that we do indeed mean it, and we spare no effort in being the best custodians we possibly can to our bees. We read books, learning what we can about them, we check on them, treat them, talk to them, plant for them, care for them, and would drop everything for them in an instant. When Jonathan Powell humbly describes his love for bees, and not even in so many words, I think he means the kind of love which goes beyond the ordinary, where nothing is ever wanted or expected in return, except for their well-being. He takes no honey, no beeswax, no control as such. He spends a huge portion of his free time advocating for a better and more in-depth understanding of honey bee biology, smarter hive design, providing habitat for free-living bees and working on rewilding projects. Many of us may not be in a position to, or be even interested in changing the relationship we have with our bees, or our methods of beekeeping. Plenty of us may be in a good groove with our bees as it is, and find that everything is working out perfectly well. But for some of us (and I include myself here), perhaps if we could even take one leaf from Jonathan’s book, we could find ourselves in better balance and harmony with our bees, and indeed our environment as a whole.
Tell me a little about yourself, and the work that you do with the Natural Beekeeping Trust and also the International Tree Beekeeping Association.
My background as a beekeeper stretches back to 1927 (not that I’m that old!) but my grandfather started beekeeping then. He won the World Cup for honey at Crystal Palace, shortly before it burned down. He taught me beekeeping as a child, so I’ve had a long history of beekeeping throughout my family.
I am a Trustee for the Natural Beekeeping Trust in the UK - and we aim to promote beekeeping which is closer to the biology of the honey bee; for the past 6 years, we have been focusing more attention on free-living bees. These are bees that are not managed by humans, they do very much exist, and they are very important.
Is the work on free-living bees you mentioned related to the rewilding
project that you’re working on in the UK and Spain?
Yes. It varies quite a bit how you approach rewilding. In Spain I was told that there were no free-living bees since 1994 due to Varroa. I wanted to show that we could introduce free-living bees into the right habitats. The right habitat is very important. It’s impossible to introduce them into landscapes that don’t have enough forage. That project is struggling a bit because out of the last 4 years, we’ve had 3 years of extreme droughts,
so we’re still trying to figure it out. However, there are free-living bees in the north of Spain where it’s a bit cooler.
There are places throughout Europe which have lost the ability to host self-managed colonies. That’s not true in the UK - there, we’re not re-wilding as such, we’re just providing lost habitat for the free-living bees that do live there. Another place you’ll be pleased to know is Ireland. There’s great work being done by Grace McCormack in Galway where they’ve tracked about 200 colonies of free-living colonies of bees. The genetic purity of those bees is interesting. I’m interested in survivor bees - bees that survive without human intervention. It’s an important trait that we need to value. I think one of the reasons why in the UK so many beekeepers are able to have bee colonies which are not treated for Varroa is because we have this huge background of free-living wild bees that for years have been living without any intervention. You need more than genetics for bees to survive without treatment. If the starting point is having bees which don’t match the climate and environment they live in, you make it really hard for those bees to survive without treatments.
So are some beekeepers in the UK catching swarms and breeding from those bees, or are they just letting them “do their thing?”
I don’t think you can really breed from free-living bees. The reason they are the way they are is because they haven’t been bred from. By breeding from them, you lose many of the characteristics that make them so strong. What you can learn from them is: what are the factors that allow free-living bees to survive, when many beekeepers would say that you have to intervene to allow them to survive. We’re interested in the difference
between the two. Big differences are that bees prefer to live high-up, 2 to 4 metres above the ground, whereas beekeepers put them on the ground, which has completely different humidity and thermal properties. Bees prefer cavities which have 5 - 10 times the insulation properties compared with a cold walled box hive. In a typical National we force the brood area to be in the bottom of the hive rather than high up. Taking the honey
from them forces them into an insecure state - then they drop hygienic behaviour. We have been putting the bees into an emergency situation. We hadn’t realised this until now because we hadn’t really studied what bees do without humans. When the bees have enough honey, they turn their attention to the maintenance of the hive and reproduction. It’s important to really study the natural biology of the honey bee at a much deeper level. How would bees choose to live if we weren’t intervening all the time? And what compromises are we making to their health when we do intervene?
When we import bees from the south to the north of Europe, and breeding for docility, honey production etc, we’re doing long-term damage to the genetics of bees. I think all beekeepers should be incredibly protective of free living-colonies, particularly in Ireland where you have these wonderful dark bees - we should be concerned about them.
You mentioned the technique we use of putting the brood chamber on the bottom and the honey supers on top. I was reading about the method that you’ve worked with, the Bashkir method, a tree hive where the brood is on top, and the honey is stored on the bottom. Only a small bit of the honey is taken away, if at all. Are people trying that out in England, and how does it translate to this part of the world?
(*It’s mainly used in Poland)
We’ve done a few Bashkir hives where you cut inside the tree, and it’s actually very hard work. We have a bit of a homeless crisis at the moment. It takes about 500 years to make a forest suitable for bees and we’ve chopped down so many of ours particularly during the war, so we can’t re-create very many labour intensive hives in the cavities of trees, and many of our older trees are protected. There are people like Matt Somerville in the UK and Michiel Verspuij from Boomtree Bees in County Donegal who are putting log hives in trees, so it’s very similar - it has a thermal mass and thermal qualities, and the bees are left alone. Michiel is trying to cover an area of 300 sq kilometres, and has already put up 100 hives, with a density of 1 hive per km squared which is close to natural density. That’ll vary depending on how much food there is for the bees. Matt Somerville
has put up over 300 hives all around the UK. Interestingly, 80 to 90% of these hives fill with bees within two weeks, it’s incredible.
What they’re discovering is the impact of things like greater insulation and thermal mass. This smooths out the fluctuations of day and night, summer and winter. In traditional beekeeping you’re told that the bees will cluster in winter. Another way of putting it is that the bees are freezing cold and they’re gathering together to survive. In a tree (where you have thermal mass and insulation) the bees are not clustering- they’re still doing activities like cleaning the hive. If you look inside one of these hives the combs are pristine, gilded by propolis, in beautiful condition coming out of winter. There are so many box hives on the ground where the walls become black with mould in the corners. The frames have so-called ‘bee space’ (I call bee draft!). The heat rises in the hive, cools, then finds this huge channel along the side walls of cooling moist air which condenses on the walls. The bees keep away from it because it’s too cold. It goes mouldy, and then creates a health issue for the bees. There is a lot we can learn about hive design from the bees. But I’ve come to the conclusion that we can only get close to the strong healthy free-living bees by drastically reducing the honey that we take because of all the compromises that has for the bees. Many people see honey as a right, and immediately push back. Many switch off when they learn that I don’t take honey. It’s true we’ve been taking honey for a very long time, but it’s only in the last 150 years that we’ve had these thin walled honey hives, and only very recently we’ve been transporting bees all around the country and world, and using commercial packaged bees. It takes 30-40 years for our actions to be revealed in bees, and they are being revealed now. We’re seeing it in mainland Europe, and I’m determined to stop that from happening here, and also to help the bees in Europe.
A lot of people I know are getting into bees and beekeeping, and it’s not about the honey for them. But it becomes about that through the way we keep bees I suppose, and I include myself there with the way I do it with the normal box hives. Some people are going to want to get into it for the honey anyway. But for those who are really only interested in bees and the environment, could we encourage them to go down the route of using log hives rather than box hives? And if so, where can they learn more about how to do that?
You’re lucky in Ireland, having Michiel up there who does courses. A very big part of Boomtree Bees is education. There are many other tree beekeepers, I like to call them “Apiologists”, who look after the free- living bees. One problem local associations may have with making those recommendations is that there is an ingrained fear of free-living bees being a disease reservoir. We need to hit that on the head. Everything I’ve said so far would indicate the opposite: it’s the managed commercial bees that are a threat to the free-living bees and all bees.
One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is that if you feed bees sugar, for example, you’re feeding them a very inferior food, which destroys the P450 enzymes in their stomach (which protects them against diseases). Having them low to the ground, having cold hives, plus the horizontal transfer of material (using frames from one hive in another) would never happen in the wild.
There have been many studies about disease: Michigan (1935), Bailey (1958), Goodwin (1994), also Seely’s work.
In Michigan, there was 13% AFB in managed colonies, so they passed a law to destroy all wild colonies. They destroyed 300 tree colonies, and not once did they find a single diseased wild hive. All studies say the same thing: disease spread doesn’t really happen in wild bees. The bees space themselves out naturally to prevent the drift of disease from one hive to another. In an apiary we put them all in a line which encourages disease spread. Wild bees are much stricter about hygiene than beekeepers are. We’ve got a lot to learn from these bees.
Beekeepers who want to save the bees should research and get comfortable with the fact that these free-living bees are of benefit even when it comes to mating with managed hives. Another issue is that we need to look at the natural density. A commercial colony of bees where the honey is taken will extract 10 times the nectar from the environment than a wild colony. We’ve lost a lot of forage such as hedgerows, and we need to be very careful about just introducing bees without thinking carefully of the impact this has on other pollinators. If there are enough honey bees in an area, then don’t put more bees into the area. Just by introducing bee hives to “save the bee,” well-intentioned people could be doing more damage than good.
You have to start fixing the environment first before introducing more bees.
Bees will find a natural balance with their environment, the comb, the brood area and heat distribution. When we start meddling with these, we start affecting the health of the bees. There are just so many beautiful delicate balances. One of the reasons free-living bees typically don’t suffer from Varroa is that simple mechanism of when they have enough honey, their brood space is contracted, and the mites simply do not have that explosive population where they can grow in the cells. So it’s not only the genetics, it’s also the physical characteristics of the hive [that influence bee health]. It’s impossible to separate the physical characteristics of the hive from the biology of the honey bee - they’re really one and the same.
That leads me to think about how long they’ve evolved. In my mind they are even more evolved than we are, as we’re quite new here...
Yes, one way to describe it would be if I put my hand on a hive of bees and close my eyes... we can imagine the bees in there, the darkness, the processes, with no human characteristics of guilt or anger. And then, say, what would happen if a bee flew up to my house, and felt human-ness, Jonathan-ness? Would they be in awe and wonder about this peace and harmony, and this person who’s living in such careful balance with the environment and the world? We know what the answer is! I’d be embarrassed by the way that we are living. The more the bees industry, the more they improve the world, but with us humans the more we industry the more we destroy the world. I’m just as guilty as the next person, and I’m trying to learn from the bees.
Yes, it makes me think of an issue we’ve had in Ireland in the last few years, and as far as I know the same thing in the UK of “queen issues”- problems with queens not mating properly or disappearing. What would your opinion be on that... is it related to what you talked about earlier with the wrong conditions of temperature, insulation etc?
I only have 2 hives in my back garden - one pallet hive and one log hive. And even though they have these nice conditions I still see queen failure. Definitely as a boy I wouldn’t have seen that at all, and when I talk to beekeepers with similar 30 or 40 years experience, they’re all seeing the same things. The environment compared with 40 years ago has completely changed. My grandfather could easily have taken 100lbs of honey from a hive. That’s no longer possible in many areas of the UK. One thing is that food availability has dropped. Another one is that the queen is fed extraordinary amounts of food, so she gets the highest concentration of pesticides. We need to look at our whole agricultural scene, because if the honey bees are struggling, then the other pollinators will struggle too.
I have a project going on with Pertwood farm, where we made a ‘Zeidler’ hive (you can find the video of that being made). We also put up 9 other nests over the 2600 acres. We started with one colony, the only bee colony around for miles. We now have 5 colonies. There have been some losses, but there is an overall expansion going on without any intervention. They do have incredible sources of food on that farm. The farmer plants clover among the oats, and acres of flowers as nitrogen fixation. The bees’ task there is to help to fertilise the soil and fix nitrogen, with no talk about taking honey.
So long story short, I think the environment has changed, in the availability and quality of food. This is why survivor bees are so important. They’re not being propped up. They’re finding their way, and if it means adapting to some of the more negative aspects of our changing environment such as surviving on less in the future, then that may be an important characteristic to foster.
In a previous interview you did, you mentioned an excerpt from a book called Honey and Dust, where the writer, feeling deflated from only getting scientific answers about bees asks a Greek Farmer: “Do you feel like a god when you are working with your bees?” and
the farmer looks at him with a glint and a smile and says: “Simpler than that. We feel like there is a God”. I loved that! How does that translate to our Irish and British beekeepers? How do we get back to, or encourage that element of spirituality inbeekeeping?
It’s a problem the English might have more than the Irish, I don’t know! Conventional beekeepers have always known that you don’t just run up to a hive and start ripping it open. There is a practice of introducing yourself to the bees. I would suggest that when you go to work with your bees, maybe take off the roof so you can feel the warmth. Simply put your hand on the hive- don’t open it yet, just feel the bees, shut your eyes and you can imagine what’s going on. Your heart rate goes down, you get more in tune with the bees and then, when you work with them you’re going to be more sensitive to what the bees are telling you as the beekeeper. So have a plan when you go to your bees- but be prepared to change that plan when you feel the spirit of the bees telling you something different.
As beekeepers we have to be careful when we say “I love my bees”, quite often what we mean is I love my knowledge and understanding of the bees. But if you put your hand on the hive and really feel the bees, I believe that you can feel the spirit of the bees, and you may come up with a completely different conclusion about your relationship with the bees.
If I were to tell a beekeeper, or a member of the public when they ask, what would you say are the top 3 things they can do to help the bees?
I think that number one is food. It’s the planting. One little garden doesn’t make much of a difference to a bee hive, but it does influence the people all around you, and gardening does also melt your heart! So number one would definitely be gardening.
If you’re a beekeeper then my encouragement would be not to be afraid of the free-living bees. We have a website freelivingbees.com also naturalbeekeepingtrust.org. So do go and visit those. We have a scientific database of over 230 papers on the subject of honey bees. So number 2 - I’d encourage you to stay curious about bees.
The third one, let’s go back to that idea that we had earlier [about how a visiting bee might judge us.] Asking where can I get inspiration about how to live my life even better? Do I really need that new iPhone, maybe I can skip a few generations before I need to indulge in that extra piece of techno-gadgetary? [Those kind of choices may help us live as in harmony with the world as the bees.]
I’d like to sincerely thank Jonathan for taking the time to speak with me. You can find more info on freelivingbees.com, naturalbeekeepingtrust. org, download his e-book The Tree Beekeeping Field Guide, and visit YouTube for Jonathan’s videos on tree beekeeping, Zeidler hives and more.