The Truth About Beekeeping - An Interview with Chris Park

Is beekeeping ethical?  Should we use bee derived products?  Are bees safe??

These are some of the questions that have been on my mind for many years now, and so I decided to finally try to find some answers.  I got in touch with several beekeepers, brand owners, and formulators so I could ask them everything, and I am so excited to be putting together a balanced article that should give us some answers!

Bees are one of nature's most magical creatures.  They help sustain and provide all life, and sadly they are in decline due to overuse of pesticides, loss of habitat, and poor crop diversity.  But one industry that continues to fight for their safety is the one that regularly comes under fire...


So in the lead up to my full post that seeks the truth from a whole host of knowledgeable people, I wanted to share an incredibly special interview with you lovelies today that helps shed some light on this often misunderstood practice.  I was so thankful to have a chance to learn from a modern druid, and his responses are so insightful that I know we can all benefit from his experiences.  Please welcome Chris Park to The ecoLogical!

Chris offers lectures on historical beekeeping, workshops in skep-making, and more, and he was kind enough to take part in my Q+A.  I am so grateful, and I hope you enjoy as much as I did!

The Truth About Beekeeping - Bee on Borage

Why are bees important?

For well over 40 million years bees have been evolving, adapting, pollinating and promoting health, abundance and benevolence upon this planet. The earliest bees’ ancestors were giant carnivorous wasps, who began eating protein rich pollen from wind-blown pollinated plants. Over millennia, plants responded by developing a vast array of flowers to reward these pollinators with nectar and a more sensual planet bloomed into being.

Bees are akin to herbalist alchemists, gathering plant medicines (pollen, nectars, resins, waxes, gums and some insect-derived carbohydrates) to improve them through enzymatic chemistry, to ripen them and to ferment them for maximum nourishment and more.

The existence of all species of bee is paramount to the preservation of the world as we know it. They have been classed as the most important species on this planet, most certainly a crucial glue and generous ingredient in the fabric of how this world we share has evolved so far.

What are your thoughts on beekeeping?

Beekeeping today is the result of a deep and distant relationship we have with bees. The ‘tip of the iceberg’ if you like. Not a great metaphor I know. How about the ‘current intonation in a vast ballad sung thus far’?

Consider how our ancient ancestors, humans and apes rooting back through the animal kingdom, have benefitted from honeycomb and brood and all bee medicines for a very long time.

Honey-hunting became beekeeping, utilising hollow trees, logs, ceramics and eventually hives. Stemming from a time when the early human mind could not see the limitations of the forest. A time when all that was reaped would spring back next year, no matter how much was hunted, foraged and harvested.

Human regard for bees and bee products through history and prehistory has been a sacred, reverential, and divine affair. At some point we began to see the whole forest, perhaps inspired and encouraged along the way by bees, secretly teaching us, guiding our thoughts, our words, our songs. Then much later we developed our texts, and in turn human rights, then animal rights, and recently earth rights were written.

So many other species have benefitted, and continue to benefit, from bees’ enchanting and selfless lust for life. With their ‘make hay while the sun shines’ eusocial co-operative endeavours, they amass and produce a great wealth of honeycomb, wax, propolis and bee-bread and more. With optimum conditions they over produce, for many reasons. To stay healthy they love to build and move on to new combs. They may swarm and swarm, re-queen and relocate, sometimes leaving a great store of food and medicine and wax behind.

It is thought that beekeeping began sometime during the Neolithic Age, where we see the beginnings of traditional farming and agriculture. Practices advanced during the Bronze age notably within the Minoan and ancient Egyptian cultures. There is an old saying “if you want to make something out of metal, you must first make it out of wax”. Honeybees and their produce, still held as most sacred during this time (as indeed were the stars, the dung heap, and all nature), were a necessity for many aspects of developing cultures. Aspects as diverse as medicine, family planning, textiles, taxes and ceremony.

So a part of beekeeping today, perhaps unconsidered by most, is perpetuating this great ballad. Each verse bringing new learning and fresh understanding. In recent years science has penetrated and scrutinised the dark olfactory mysteries of the bee colony. A light has been shined into that well warded, warm and vibratory inner sanctum. Much has been learnt and continues to inspire and fascinate.

We are still in an era where beekeeping, and the results of science, like much of contemporary human endeavour, can be a pursuit of profit through selfish manipulation of nature. I like to think that a new wave is rolling and gaining momentum. A sea change of increased sensitivity and regard for bees and beyond. Upholding a more bee-centred craft. Indicating a world becoming ever more respectful of itself.

Are there any myths or assumptions about beekeeping that you would like to address?

Yes. I would hope to reassure considerate and compassionate folks and vegans alike, who might be choosing not to eat honey nor benefit from bee products and medicines, that honeybees can be kept very ethically and respectfully. That one can keep bees and harvest some of their produce without depriving them nor causing them harm. In fact it is amazing how much one can help them.

I am a skep-maker and skep-beekeeper, researching styles of heritage beekeeping. Even some knowledgeable beekeepers today think a colony in a skep must be destroyed to make a harvest. This is not true. I’d like to dispel that myth. There was a culture of it practiced by some bee masters in the past, but it was never the only way. Bees love skeps, and with an understanding attitude, one can enjoy keeping bees in them, ensuring healthy and happy colonies, whilst harvesting some produce, with no harm done.

Lani Tropical Super Serum - bee on daisy
This little bee decided to stop in for a visit during my photo shoot with vegan beauty brand Lani!

Can bees benefit from beekeeping?

Yes, greatly. The beekeeper’s transaction is that one gives them a good home, protected from the elements, pests and disease, ensuring forage and a good water source in exchange for some honey and other produce.

Bees can thrive without the beekeeper obviously, having found a secure and well insulated cavity. Wild colonies are usually very healthy. However, they do get caught out from time to time by the weather, a dearth of forage, being robbed out by wasps, invaded in the winter by rodents, raided by woodpeckers, predated by hornets and bears, or become queen-less, due to a number of factors.

We can help them greatly, always learning and improving one’s craft and technique, but we can be a hinderance too. We can be a vector for bee disease and bee stress, through bad practice and making mistakes, through too much intervention and manipulation.

Recent beekeeping practices and the exportation of bees and bee products around the world have created many challenges for honeybees in the way of pests and disease. What we are finding though is that wild colonies and colonies that are kept treatment free, being allowed to swarm and never fed sugar etcetera, are developing strategies to combat mites and viruses.

Bees are experts at adaptation. Nature’s way is often if not always the best way. There are many avenues of research in apiculture. Potential genetic modification worries me, simply because it can create an existence that has not evolved within, as an intrinsic part of, the ecosystem it is expected to inhabit benefit. This alone I believe is a moral reason to reject GM, even before any mention of the patents and pesticides and profiteering.

There are some styles of beekeeping that are more bee-centred and some that are more beekeeper-centred, but I would say that all beekeeping in general is good for bees, because it provides them with habitat and opportunity to increase and proliferate. Incidentally, bees are not classed as domesticated creatures, but wild animals, under the care and guardianship of the keeper.

What is the link between beekeeping and bee conservation?

Beekeepers are aware of what bees need, of bee forage, and so forth. Therefore they usually become educated about other native pollinators such as bumblebees, solitary bees, cuckoo bees and cavity bees. Beekeepers gain a particular nature-awareness of trees and plants, wind, water, weather and other environmental stimuli.

We work with the seasons in an intimate way, and the craft overlaps with horticulture, agriculture, animal husbandry and forestry and farming, where one would hope a deeper understanding, empathy, love and respect of the natural world is cultivated.

What threatens honeybees may also threaten bumblebees and other pollinators. Beekeeping associations are currently raising much awareness of the Asian Hornet. A threat to all bees. It that can destroy a colony, being more aggressive and more predatory than the European Hornet. It has become endemic in France, whose beekeepers have suffered 50% colony losses as a result. It has spread to the Channel Islands, and routinely pops up in the UK each year, where is has been kept at bay.

Some people also keep bees just to provide a good habitat for them. Understanding that there may be a lack of hollow trees and natural cavities for them to occupy. This is becoming more common each year as public awareness of bees increases.

They are also key indicators of what is happening in the bionetworks and ecosystems that we are a part of. For example, in 2015 it was reported that honey from hives near Dounray nuclear fuel processing plant in Scotland, which closed in 1994, was found with levels of radioactive caesium-137 fourteen times higher than the normal expected levels of UK honey.

Is there a difference between individuals keeping bees and doing it large scale?  How so?

It is often the reason why someone keeps bees that determines how they keep bees. Therefore, there can be a big difference in the practices of hobby beekeepers and those of large-scale beekeepers, but it is not always the case.

Bee farmers may rent hives out for pollination purposes. Hobby beekeepers rarely do so. This is an interesting issue. On one hand it will disorientate a colony, causing some stress and strain in the moving process, but one the other hand it provides them with an abundant supply of forage close by.

There is a sliding scale of beekeeping intervention from none to a lot. Some folks at the former end keep bees just for the bees’ sake, providing optimum habitat, and harvesting no honey nor produce. Bee farmers would usually be near the latter end, utilising numerous practices, treatments and manipulations to create artificially large honey producing units for maximum profit. A hobby beekeeper with one or two colonies could easily employ the same strategy though.

It is very important to add here though that bee farmers, are not necessarily ruthless, greedy, capitalist, bee oppressors. They may love bees, certainly want to keep healthy bees, and can look after a lot of bees with grace, and without treatments. In fact some are pioneers in this field.

Bee breeding and queen rearing are practices that bee farmers will commonly employ or out-source. This is to ensure young virile queens in each hive, to encourage productivity. This may involve the culling of existing queens, which ethical consumers may not be comfortable with. It may also involve the shipping and international posting of live queens and bees. Reassuringly, there is a current trend of sourcing one’s bees as locally as possible.

Bees of course make their own queens, and once one is looking after bees, they will naturally increase of their own accord. There is no need to breed queens to maintain healthy colonies. The worker bees, as an autonomous collective, decide when to make new queens. Usually when they run out of space to expand, or when the old sovereign wanes, reduces egg laying, or when a colony is large and healthy and seizes the chance to procreate. This has been termed ‘natural propagation’.

There can be a 20% to 40% chance of the new virgin queen failing however (either by not returning, being eaten by a bird, being infertile, being poorly mated, etc), and a colony can become queen-less. They will then dwindle if not united with another colony or re-queened by the beekeeper. When wild colonies fail, then a great treasure store is left behind for bees, insects, birds and mammals to benefit from. When a kept colony becomes queen-less it is also a good opportunity to harvest honey, wax, propolis, and bee bread and clean the hive and restock it with a swarm ensuring new, healthy comb and vitality.

So there are many differences, and can be similarities. I suppose it’s possible that a large scale bee keeper or bee farmer may be more prone to desensitisation, and may objectify colonies of bees at times. I think it best not to make these kind of assumptions unless you have experience of this though. To not judge books by covers, and imagine having walked in someone else’s shoes and all those wise idioms – make qualitative research. You’ll rarely find two beekeepers the same either!

Bees are certainly much happier being left alone with minimal intervention, and therefore more of a joy to work with. Bee breeding to create more productive bees can end up with disastrous results. The infamous, aggressive Africanised Bee that has been spreading across America for decades is the result of an escaped colony from a breeding programme. Highly productive bees are often highly defensive and selective breeding to encourage these traits can backfire.

It is now known that colonies which may seem unproductive are prolific in other ways, developing and perpetuating hygienic behaviour that helps tackle pests and disease. Some colonies produce more propolis than others, and it is thought that this behaviour is in built, rather than a response to environmental factors. Propolis is a miracle medicine, often cited as the ‘immune system’ of a hive, but has been considered a nuisance by some beekeepers because of its sticky agglutinous nature. Breeding out these traits for the beekeeper’s convenience is obviously not in the bees’ best interest. Natural propagation of bees is, but one needs ample space, time and interest to do it. Your bees and the wild bees within your area will be better for it though in the long run.

Mono Naturoils Face Masks - Bee on borage
another friendly bee visitor, this time during my photo shoot with Mono!

How do you actually harvest bee “ingredients”? What is the process?

In many ways, according to the style of hive and beekeeping practices.
There are many styles of hive and more differing styles of management.

Honey is most commonly collected from a moveable frame beehive. Frames of honey can be removed to then be uncapped, allowing the honey to be spun from the comb. Some honey is pressed and/or drained. Comb-honey can be removed and cut into sections. Apitherapy assesses comb-honey as being highest quality with the finest characteristics. Then pressed/drained honey and in turn spun honey.

Propolis may be scraped from frames or hive parts, but is most commonly harvested by putting a screen on top of the frames within a hive. It is propolised by the bees, and then removed by the beekeeper with no detriment to the colony.

Bee pollen is usually collected by modifying the hive entrance to brush the pollen from the bees’ legs. Some designs claim to be kinder to the bees’ wings than others. I’ve never seen these ‘pollen traps’ harm a bee. It will of course deprive the colony of pollen if left on, or in collection mode, for too long. An hour at noon on a sunny summer’s day is the kindest way to harvest pollen.

Bee bread is pollen that has been packed into hexagonal cells, enzymatically improved and mildly fermented by bees. It can be harvested with a fork, or combs can be frozen and broken to expose it. It is best to acquire as fresh as possible. Can easily be removed with no harm to bees.

Bee Venom. Whilst being able to treat and cure immune system disorders like Rhumatoid Arthiritis, Bee Venom Therapy (B.V.T.) is not so common in the UK. Although products containing bee venom can be readily acquired. The liquid can extracted from bees by giving them a mild electric shock that stimulates them to eject some venom. Which may be dried and stored or kept in a solution. B.V.T. is more potent and common using live bees, and a skilled apitherapist would choose a bee near to the end of its life for this purpose. This is perhaps the most contentious bee product and apitherapy practice, as the bee then dies after stinging the patient. Plus, there is a risk of the patient developing an allergy.

Royal Jelly is harvested from queen cells, but is present in all bee brood. The cells are taken out and the jelly removed. This is detrimental to the tiny queen larvae, which may only be a few days old. The beekeeper has probably made a special frame on which the bees will make many queen cells. It can be likened to taking eggs from hens.

Is this all safe for the bees?

Apart form bee venom, this is all safe for bees and can be done sensitively without detriment to the colony. Using live bees for B.V.T. I must add is not harmful to the greater colony. Worker bees in summer only live for six weeks, and are only foraging and flying in the latter weeks.

It is fair to consider a colony of bees as a whole organism, and traditional B.V.T. can be likened to blood donation. My apitherapy teacher also compares the bee sting to the surgeon’s scalpel. Saying that used in the right way they can be miraculous.

Are there any practices that might be harmful that should be avoided?

Many beekeeping manipulations can be stressful for bees, and bee stress can lead to lowered immunity and disease. The simple action of taking off the roof of a hive lowers the temperature, disperses the hive scent, breaks wax and propolis and lets light in. After a gentle inspection by a considerate beekeeper on warm and sunny day, bees will be back to business as usual in no time.

Smoking bees is common practice, especially when harvesting honey. This is done to mask the sting pheromones and calm the bees down if they are defensive. It can also cause them to fill up their stomachs with honey in case they need to relocate. Smoking bees is not harmful if done in a considered fashion. Not all beekeepers do.

Bees may be squashed when putting a hive back together. Even the most skilful beekeeper will squash a bee from time to time. If the worker bees can’t remove it, they will varnish it with propolis (being anti-microbial, anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-fungal, anti mould, etc.) to prevent decay.

I think that clipping queens’ wings is perhaps the most unkind practice. Some beekeepers will cut off half of a queen bee’s wing to prevent the colony from successfully swarming. She will fly out of the hive with the issuing swarm, but fall helplessly to the ground. In this way the beekeeper prevents swarming. It is not necessary, and bees love swarming. They do it for very good reasons. Allowing bees to swarm is not always practical for a beekeeper, or those living close by, but it is very good for bees. It ensures new comb, which keeps the bees a step ahead of diseases and parasites. The mother colony will then undergo a parasite and disease ‘brood break’ as the newly hatched virgin queens take time to mate and begin egg laying.

Are there any bee derived ingredients you do not think should be harvested (either at all or on a regular basis)?
I think that the power and practice of apitherapy can work so many wonders in human and veterinary medicine, that there will always be a scenario where the use of any bee derived ingredient can be justified. One’s personal ecological responsibility must come into play here. When considering bee products, also remember that a colony as a whole may be healthier, stronger and more successful due to the efforts of the beekeeper, in exchange for some produce. The ‘whole’ colony is neither harmed nor depleted by impeccable beekeeping and harvest.

Greedy beekeeping however can cause upset. It has been common for some folks to harvest as too much honey and feed the back refined sugar syrup. This is such a poor substance compared to the nutrition and medicine of honey. It is damaging to the bee gut biomes and health. They will lap it up, but it is a very poor substitution.

Royal Jelly’s role in cosmetics can conjure images of vanity and expensive treatments at the honeybees’ expense. To mass produce royal jelly, which is a wonderful medicine, with numerous benefits, a colony needs to be manipulated. They need to be fooled into thinking they are queenless. This does not harm them as such, but an artificial scenario is created so that a large amount of queen cells are produced, and the young queen larvae may then be discarded after the jelly is harvested.

Whenever any kind of harvest is taken, the beekeeper must be mindful that the colony is not deprived of any of its needs. That the time is right, the amount is right and any restorative measures be made. It is certainly possible to harvest too much pollen too regularly, or too early in spring. It is possible to harvest too much of any bee product, too regularly. I think that beeswax and propolis would be the products that it would be difficult to over extract.

A colony of bees is a self-repairing unit. Whatever scenario they may find themselves in they will plough on with the task at hand, diligently and delightfully. They are not really fussy about where they live as long as it is big enough, well insulated and easily defended from damp and pests. Current research shows that bees do sleep, and can have long periods of rest and idleness, hanging out on the comb.

Why do you use bee derived ingredients in your formulas?

I am a beekeeper and honey is medicine. Everything that comes out of a beehive is medicine. Not just alternative, complimentary, prophylactic or adjuvant medicines, but miraculous, powerful, modulatory, curative, life-changing and life-saving medicines in their own right. Many cultures for thousands of years have understood this, and revered bees and their work and message: Ancient Egyptian; Sumerian; Ayurvedic; Chinese; Celtic, Baltic; Indigenous healers worldwide… Even the air that issues from a hive has many benefits for stress relief, respiratory disorders and more.

I am perpetuating and furthering this relationship, striving for best practice, looking to the past looking to the future. Trying to keep that dynamic equilibrium between healthy bee colonies and personal health, family health & community health.

The world is changing faster than we know. Whatever might be around the corner, however the sky falls down or the seas rise up, there are blessings and wisdom in bee medicine, in preserving ancient beekeeping, in continuing this age old relationship that humans and bees have had for so long. Seeking more sensitivity, more understanding and more ethic.
My relationship with bees has grown over years, rooted in traditional crafts, folklore, Druidry, growing through ecology, nutrition and apitherapy. Caring for them and learning from them, understanding bee medicines and apitherapeutic research and practice, plus experimenting with traditional honey drinks and brews, is a part of my calling at the moment, a way in which I can be of service to both bees and humans.

When it comes to sourcing bee derived ingredients, what is important?

Get to know the beekeeper and discover the spirit with which they keep their bees. Find out if the bees are treatment free, how well they are treated, how bee-centred their practices are. Or even better, become the beekeeper. If neither of these are an option, then at least try to source locally.

It is unfortunate that the way most of us live at present means we have to out-source most of our everyday needs and wants - our food, water, shelter, medicine, clothes, entertainment, spirituality and education. The waves are rolling though, and the current trends of sourcing locally are wholesome and preparatory in many ways. Once we out-source something to a business, working to schedules and profit and economic laws, does the spirit of the product seem corrupted somehow? There is so much warm and intimate marketing today to enchant us to think differently, and I hope it is all a fair representation of the process and people. Getting to know the people can be interesting, rewarding and reassuring.

There is definitely room for an assessed ethical honey ‘award’ or ‘label’ that beekeepers could apply for, or self-assess for. Perhaps a points scheme. Something akin to the ‘red tractor’ for honey and bee-derived products. My tick list would be detailed. High on the list would be not clipping queen’s wings, not over extracting honey, not feeding bees sugar syrup, and not treating bees with miticides or chemicals and not heating honey.

How do you know the bees are being treated well, what red flags can you look for, are there any specific credentials that are important, differences in quality, what should a consumer know?

You wouldn’t necessarily know by looking at the product. Maybe the label could tell you something? I think consumers would like to know if bees are treatment free for example; you don’t often see that written on labels.

Most UK honey will set within a few months, not all, but most. A lot of beekeepers will heat up honey until it is runny because it sells better. It then takes longer to set, and when it does will often set rougher. The characteristics and taste will also change. I would value soft set (raw, unheated) honey over runny honey within the UK. Internationally though there are some that may not set in ten years, like acacia and eucalyptus honey.

To be labelled as organic, a hive needs something like a four mile radius of certified organic land around it. There’s only one place in Britain that has that, the Balmoral Estate. They don’t produce organic honey though. So at present, to my knowledge, you cannot find a UK sourced certified organic bee produce. Hives of bees kept on or near organic farmland (most of their forage will be within a mile radius) or in densely wooded areas, or areas of heathland or isolation form non-organic farming or other forms of cultivated landscape will be the nearest to organic you can get.

Again, there is room for an ethical honey/bee produce award or labelling scheme. If you want to help make that happen please do get in touch….

Truth About Beekeeping - Bee in Erica

If you have any further questions, do drop them in the comments below!  I will do my best to address them in the full article, and would love to find you answers.  And if you are interested in what Chris offers, you can find him in the following places:

Acorn Education - a place "dedicated to integrating nature and education, and providing experiential learning for all of the senses."

Living Beeing - a podcast about bees!  Learn from all those passionate about bees, "from entomologists to botanists, scientists, beekeepers, honey experts, historians, artists and api-therapists"

Instagram - find Chris over on Instagram along with beautiful photos of bees, wildlife, and more!

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