That’s actually a somewhat difficult question to answer.
Kind of like asking “what’s your favorite flavor?” or “what’s your favorite color?”
Asking several beekeepers what it means to them would probably elicit several different responses. And, in fact, some beekeepers would probably not even be familiar with the term.
But among those who practice beekeeping using what they consider to be natural techniques, I think there would be one item of shared philosophy.
So let’s use that common ground as the starting point in defining natural beekeeping.
It may come as a surprise to some who are unfamiliar with beekeeping, but there are a fair number of synthetic (man-made) chemical products that can be used in managing a hive.
Though we may not like it, we are accustomed to the idea of crops being sprayed with pesticides. And most people are aware that livestock may also be treated with all manner of chemicals (we’re speaking of non-organic farming, of course).
But the fact is that bees are susceptible to a number of pests and diseases, and many chemical treatments and preventatives have been developed to combat these enemies of the honey bee.
It’s safe to say that proponents of using natural techniques in beekeeping have a common goal of producing natural honey (not necessarily the same thing as certified organic honey) and all other hive products in their most natural form, free of any chemical contaminants.
And all beekeepers that are proponents of natural techniques would agree that eliminating the treatment of colonies with synthetic chemicals would be one aspect of natural beekeeping.
Even on this topic, though, the word ‘synthetic’ would be the only point of universal agreement.
There are a number of natural chemicals that are used to duplicate the benefits of the synthetic chemicals.
Some would say that using natural chemicals in the hive is perfectly acceptable. Others would argue that introducing anything into a hive that the bees themselves would not bring into the hive is completely unnatural.
Beyond avoiding the use of synthetic chemicals, there’s not a lot of agreement over what specifically defines natural beekeeping.
Some insist that using a modern Langstroth hive is unnatural, believing that other hive designs such as top bar hives are more natural.
Some believe that the cell sizes that have been used in foundation for decades is unnatural, and that using smaller cell foundation, or even no foundation at all, eliminates some of the problems faced by modern beekeeping.
And many natural beekeepers believe that hive inspections should be kept to an absolute minimum – but that’s probably good advice for all beekeepers.
Some even believe that using a bee smoker when inspecting a hive is unnatural and should be avoided.
(Can’t say that I agree with that one. After all, getting stung is perfectly natural; but quite naturally, I prefer to keep that natural experience to an absolute minimum!)
Strictly speaking, any form of beekeeping is unnatural. Bees that are being kept in any way aren't living 100% as they would in the wild.
But as with everything in life and in nature, it’s all a matter of balance. And if you examine any debate with extremely opposing viewpoints, there is usually some truth on both sides.
So who’s right? What exactly is natural beekeeping?
That’s an argument that is likely to rage on for many years.
Choose a side and join the debate!
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While I don't have an opinion either way, I do wonder one thing: are there popular rebuttals to ideas, such as those proliferated by Ross Conrad, that …