Responsible beekeeping around the world
The naturally self-preserving, antimicrobial properties of honey have made it a rich, valuable ingredient throughout human history. Cave paintings in Ancient Egypt dated to 2400 BC display scenes of bee-keeping so similar to modern methods that Eva Crane, in her book The Archaeology of Beekeeping (1984), states: “There has, in fact, been relatively little change even in 4,400 years.”
And, while technique may not have changed a great deal since the ancient Egyptian era, demand for the golden delight is far higher. Honey is regarded a staple store cupboard ingredient around the world, but, given its precious nature, it is important to ensure beekeepers act as guardians of the bees, instead of as the producers of honey.
Going wild for honey
Travel deep into the raw, uncultivated forests that cover around 60% of Zambia, and you’ll hear the hum of these wild insects in flight, busy amongst the flora. Wild beekeeping a popular source of income for local communities and locals act as stewards for the bees’ environment rather than adopting the use of pesticides or herbicides.
“There is a huge level of expertise and a great respect for the bees, and beekeeping is a skill that gets passed down from generation to generation. The parents here teach their children beekeeping skills from a young age to ensure that they are not scared of the bees, and because, even if they go into a different industry, it's a respected skill that can provide valuable supplementary income,” explains Lush ingredients buyer Gabbi Loedolff.
Wild beekeepers create traditional handmade hives in the tree bark using knowledge passed down through the generations. One tree can be used to create between 15 and 20 beehives, which house bees for around 10 years, and have a minimal impact on the environment. To recover the honey, beekeepers shimmy up trees - normally without any protective kit - to retrieve the hollow hive cylinder made of bark and extract the rich honeycomb inside. It’s a challenging maneuver, dictated by the preference of the bees for high hives.
Taking British beekeeping back to basics
Zambian beekeeping is an intrepid form of honey harvesting compared to widespread commercial production, but similarly pioneering techniques are developing closer to home too. Back to basics, Devon-based beekeeper, Philip Chandler, adopted a more natural approach to beekeeping years ago in a bid to help bee numbers swell: “I started off with conventional equipment and hives and very quickly started questioning why it was necessary to use all this complex gear for what is essentially a simple operation. Our interactions with the honeybee don’t need to be as complex as they are.”
Phil complements his use of top bar hives - simple designs which give bees a greater degree of freedom in how they build their combs - with breeding techniques which will help his bees to fight local diseases, or, as he puts it, “solve their own problems.” For example, he reveals that he has just bought three queens from the University of Sussex because these bees have a particular skill: “The queens are able to detect Varroa destructor mites in the cells and get the workers to drag these out. They’re also very disease resistant and those are particular traits that I want to breed into my bees.”
Phil also suggests that honeybee numbers have improved - although not beyond the point of concern. “Honeybees do have problems but these are largely problems of our own making; Varroa destructor mites that have spread around the world on the back of the beekeeping industry and the threat of chemical agriculture.
“The honeybee population in the UK is directly proportional to the number of beekeepers, which has risen in the last five to six years, putting them in a stronger position than other bee species, such as bumblebees and solitary bees, which have to fend for themselves and may be in greater danger.”
And, given the importance of bees in the natural world, perhaps creating habitats and wild hives to house and protect them is a responsibility that shouldn’t be ignored.
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