This is a great little video from Gaia Bees, an American natural beekeeper doing some very interesting work in bee colony resilience and apicentric beekeeping.
The super interesting thing about this video is that it clearly shows how, in a ‘wild hive’, the colony starts at the highest point of the cavity, and draws their comb downwards. This is precisely what Emile Warré was trying to mimic with the way his ‘people’s hive’ worked, and with his approach to beekeeping…
Another key thing that this video shows is how the bees cover the comb as they move down… in nature, bees don’t leave large amounts of empty space, or empty comb above them.
They build the comb, then fill it with brood (baby bees), and then as each successive generation of babies hatch, those empty cells above get filled with pollen and with honey.
All the while, the bees are building more comb down the cavity and repeating the above process.
In this way, the brood ‘nest’ slowly moves downward with each successive generation of eggs laid and hatched and tended, always with a dense thermal dome of honey and pollen above it.
With his ‘people’s hive’ Emile Warré was trying to create a hive that allows the beekeeper to mimic and allow for this natural behaviour, so as to make as bee-friendly a beekeeping system as possible.
While also getting a yield of honey, if the season is a good one.
The act of ‘nadiring’ is one of the Warré beekeeping techniques central to this process. Nadiring is the act of expanding the hive by placing empty boxes at the bottom of the colony, rather than on top. Extending the tree cavity below, as it were.
By allowing the bee colony to constantly draw new comb downwards, the brood is always protected from temperature fluctuations by a dense dome of honey and pollen directly above it.
This technique also means that new brood is always laid in fresh, just-made comb, which is far healthier for the colony as a whole, and for breaking disease vectors.
Nadiring also means that the beekeeper is never introducing blank, uninsulated space directly above the brood nest in the form of an empty box of frames.
This can lessen the overall stress of the colony dramatically, as the bees don’t have to frantically fill the suddenly introduced empty space above their babies with comb and honey stores to keep their brood nest healthy and temperature stable.
All these factors help minimise the stress of the bee colony, which in turn contributes to that colony’s overall health, and thus its ability to deal with disease, parasites, variable seasons and environmental toxicity.
All of this is somewhat at odds with conventional beekeeping technique, however, which restricts the brood to the bottom section of the hive (using a queen excluder so that she cannot climb up and lay in the boxes above) and introduces empty boxes on top of the colony regularly.
The effects of these practices on the colony are many, but include the queen laying multiple generations of brood in the same comb. The worker bees will also compulsively and continually fill the regularly renewed empty boxes / re-introduced comb (or ‘stickies’) above their brood nest to try and regulate the hive’s temperature.
This is a great way to maximise honey production, but is probably (to be gentle about it) not the best way to go about ensuring optimal colony health and resilience.
It’s interesting to me that as we sign every ‘save the bees’ petition that comes across our paths, but we are not, as a population, largely motivated (yet) by the idea of apicentric beekeeping – the idea of putting the health of the bee colony before it’s harvest.
I do think this will change, and like our approach to keeping many other species of animal for their life-giving outputs and harvests, it’s largely a matter of more of us understanding what’s going on here for the species involved.
Perhaps we need to place more importance on, as Joel Salatin puts it with his animal husbandry, the ‘pigness of the pig’ – in order to better farm that animal in an ethical, regenerative and companionable way.
Widespread understanding of the ‘bee-ness of the bee’ will have its day, I hope.
And I think we’re on our way there, because there’s plenty of great resources on the how and why of apicentric beekeeping already, with more cropping up all the time, as small scale beekeepers (who represent the future of beekeeping globally) keep observing and slowly forging a path ahead…
Cheers to Tim Malfroy for the (ongoing) conversation on natural comb that led to this post.