Thoughts on the Culling of Bees to Maintain Colony Strength.

Farmers and stockbreeders constantly cull the weak animals from their herds and breed only from the strongest. In the wild, before man started managing wild animals, this happened naturally through ‘the survival of the fittest’.

Imagine what would be the result if cattle breeders kept all their animals alive and just ‘harvested’ the milk from the cows. Soon the herd would outgrow the available pasture and the cows would start to sicken and die. In fact, this has happened in East Africa where the Maasai tribe valued their stock by numbers rather than quality. The richest Maasai man was the one with the most animals. (The Maasai harvest blood from live cows as well as milk.) As the herds multiplied unchecked, they denuded the grass available and the tribe moved on. This can only work for a time until all the available grazing is exhausted. In addition to this, the overall quality of the herds diminished due to inbreeding, breeding by inferior animals and poor sustenance.

Conversely, Western World farmers send any inferior beasts to market before they breed, they select the best animals to breed from and ensure that the ones they keep are strong and healthy. As a result the yields of milk or meat increase and the quality of the produce improves whilst the herd stays strong and able to resist most diseases.

Why then do beekeepers practice the ‘Maasai’ method?

In my recent blog I described how bees were kept prior to the introduction of the sectional hive. I repeat this description below.

For centuries, up until the late 1800s, honey bees were kept in hives known as skeps, dome-shaped structures made from coils of straw, so tightly woven and wound that they were completely weatherproof, cool in summer and warm in winter.

Each autumn the beekeeper would select the hives that were to be harvested, probably some one-third or a half of his stock, much as a livestock farmer would select a percentage of his cattle or sheep for slaughter to provide food for winter. Both farmer and beekeeper would retain their best and strongest beasts or hives to reproduce during the following year.

All the inhabitants of the condemned hives, both queens, drones and workers, were then suffocated to death with smoke and the entire stock of honeycombs removed and the empty skeps burnt. The remaining hives, full of strong healthy bees, containing enough honey to sustain the colony through the winter, were left alone and, in May of the following year, the colony would reproduce itself by sending out a large swarm of bees, led by the old queen, to colonise a new skep provided by the beekeeper nearby. A new young queen would rebuild the old colony with the remaining workers.

After the autumn harvest, the contents of the honeycombs from the slaughtered colonies, both honey and all the immature grubs which would otherwise have hatched in the early spring, were separated out, the honey filtered and put into jars and the grubs fed to the chickens.

This seemingly cruel method was replaced by the use of the newly invented sectional hive as described below.

The lower half of this hive consists of a brood chamber, the upper part being reserved for honey storage. A metal screen separates the two sections with holes in it large enough for the worker bees to pass though and store the honey, but small enough to prevent the bigger queen from laying eggs in the honey-storage area. The perceived advantage of this system was that the colony no longer had to be murdered to recover the honey. It was and still is, a simple matter to remove the top section each year and take away the honey-filled combs, leaving the brood chambers undisturbed to hatch out the following spring.

As with many new ideas, there have been unplanned consequences. All the colonies, containing strong and weak bees, continue to breed (swarm), the overall numbers of hives in a particular area increases – often beyond the feeding capacity of the local area. Thus there would not be sufficient flowers to provide adequate nectar and pollen to sustain all the hives at a full and healthy strength. The hives themselves, being in constant use, do not get disinfected and thus parasites continue to breed unchecked.

Add to this the appalling way in which the health-giving honey is plundered and replaced by sterile sugar-syrup (the subject of my earlier blog), and the effects of pesticides and we have the perfect storm for the unfortunate bees.

· Weak and diseased colonies continue to multiply (swarm) whilst they have the strength to do so.
· All colonies are robbed of virtually all their honey (containing the health-maintaining substances we humans rate so highly for ourselves) and given sterile sugar substitutes.
· Mites and other parasites linger on in continually-used hives to keep infecting the ever weaker inhabitants.
· There is a danger that the population of bees in any area outgrows the supply of available nectar and pollen within reasonable flying distance.
· Modern, widely used insecticides must also be contributing to the decline – bees are insects after all.
· In the USA, though not so much in the UK, hives are transported all over the country, sometimes several times in a season, to either assist in pollination of fruit trees or to gather more honey from flowers such as heather. How much of this kind of disruptive treatment can any living creatures stand without suffering deterioration in health?

As I said, a perfect storm! A return to responsible culling should be considered as one part of the solution if we are to stabilise the population of these vital insects who have served humanity so well in the past.

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