Honeybees collect nectar from an Eryngium plant at Great Dixter in Northiam, East Sussex, on 4 August 2013. Photo by Chris Helgren/Reuters


The accidental beekeeper

The gift of a half-wanted hive took me into the world of bees, kept and wild: a place of generosity and attentiveness

by Helen Jukes + BIO

Honeybees collect nectar from an Eryngium plant at Great Dixter in Northiam, East Sussex, on 4 August 2013. Photo by Chris Helgren/Reuters

‘When I’m manning an information stall,’ my beekeeper friend Paul told me recently, ‘there’s one question I’m always asked: “Bees are in trouble, aren’t they?” I tell them: “Honeybees in the UK, not really; honeybees in the US, yes; wild bee species globally, yes.” Then I cram in as much detail as I can about the biodiversity crisis before their eyes glaze over and they wander off in the direction of the ice-cream van.’

Paul does himself an injustice – I could listen to him rattle on for hours. He’s one of those people with a knowledge gleaned from years spent watching the bees in his garden, watching the fields and hedgerows, chewing the fat with other beekeepers, and sifting through endless articles and research papers online. He makes the information interesting, by which I mean he adds colour to it, adds experience, adds story, shoehorning little anecdotes and details that make vertiginous issues such as biodiversity collapse pressing in a good way – a rallying way, a way that makes one want to step up and take note and make a difference.

He’s right about honeybee populations, too. Apis mellifera, the western honeybee, is a member of the genus Apis, known for its production of wax and honey, and for the fact that it lives collectively, as part of a colony. While losses in the US and Europe over the past two decades have focused attention on the plight of this species, at least in the UK and Europe populations now appear relatively stable.

In the US, where honeybees were brought over with European settlers in the 17th century, the situation is more complicated. Beekeepers report winter losses of around 30 per cent (this rose to nearly 40 per cent in the winter of 2018-19, the highest figure ever recorded in the 13 years since the survey commenced). So, although total hive numbers have improved since the declines brought about by Colony Collapse Disorder, this is being achieved mostly through increasingly invasive practices: beekeepers offset losses either by replacing colonies or ‘splitting’ existing ones, taking a portion of eggs, larvae, bees and food stores from a healthy colony and placing them in a new hive with a queen reared specially for the purpose. Since the reasons driving the high loss rates remain unaddressed, beekeepers are essentially having to work harder now than they were a few decades ago just to ‘stay in one place’.

Honeybees, of course, are a small part of a much larger picture – and this is where Paul’s comment about the biodiversity crisis comes in. There are around 20,000 bee species in the world, and a multitude of other pollinating insects, including wasps, beetles and hoverflies; and in the years since the first reports of honeybee losses, a far more devastating truth has come to light. In 2017, a study in Germany recorded a 75 per cent drop in flying insects during the past three decades, prompting newspaper headlines warning of an ‘insectageddon’. In 2019, a comprehensive review of research studies concluded that more than 40 per cent of insect species are in decline and a third are endangered globally – a shocking statistic, for which the main drivers are intensive agriculture, urbanisation and climate breakdown. Needless to say, these same factors are among those that have made honeybees vulnerable.

Insects are the most diverse group of animals on the planet – they include more than a million named species and represent more than half of all known living organisms. They pollinate most flowering plants, aid the breakdown of organic matter, and play an intrinsic part in many food webs; they are, according to the American biologist E O Wilson, ‘the heart of life on Earth’. So, it matters if they go missing. It matters in the way that it matters when any creature disappears (it just does), but it matters also because, by way of complex and interconnected networks we’re yet to fully understand, insects play a critical role in the ecosystems upon which much of our plant and creature life depends.

Most bees are solitary species. Many build their nests in or on the ground, and therefore rely on key habitats being available and undisturbed. Some, like honeybees, are generalists, meaning that they forage on a range of flowers; others are specialists, meaning that they’re dependent on particular plant species being present in their environment. Take the sunflower leafcutting bee, which collects pollen from sunflowers and builds nests out of leaves, using its mandibles (like giant teeth attached to the front of its head) to dig down into hard-packed soil and build a tunnel more than four times the length of its body. This bee was once common across the grasslands of north America but, since more than 90 per cent of these habitats have now been converted to agricultural use, it’s been driven out of much of its native range. The rusty patched bumble bee, a brightly furred being that often forms its nests in the abandoned burrows of other species, has a similar story: following declines across 87 per cent of its historic habitat range, in north America it is now officially listed as an endangered species.

Declines in wild bee species have also been recorded in Europe, driven to a large extent by the loss of habitats and spread of plant monocultures brought about by intensive agriculture. Consider that in the UK, where in recent decades three of the 25 native bumblebee species have gone extinct, more than 97 per cent of wildflower meadows have been destroyed in the past 100 years, as well as thousands of miles of hedgerows; or that 2,000 different pesticides are now applied to agricultural land across Europe, many of which have impacts far beyond their target species. As Dave Goulson, professor of biology at the University of Sussex, notes: ‘We appear to be making vast tracts of land inhospitable to most forms of life.’

Here we need to make a distinction between kept bee populations and wild ones. There’s an obvious economic incentive for maintaining hive numbers because the honey industry and many agricultural crops depend on them. Wild bees are important pollinators too but, because their role is less understood, their situation is far more perilous.

It appears that honeybees can sometimes negatively impact wild populations

Which forces a question: in areas where honeybee populations are being introduced while ecosystems are degraded, is it possible they’re creating competition for wild species? It’s difficult to arrive at a clear answer to this, mostly because these are very small creatures moving across very large areas, making data collection a challenge. But, alarmingly – and unnervingly for people like me who keep bees as a hobby, as a means of feeling more connected to the creatures outside my back door, and of resisting the tendency to switch off and, instead, to bring attention to the nonhuman world and my place in it – some research findings suggest that the answer is ‘yes’.

Where species-rich flowering habitats are in abundance, kept honeybees and wild bee species are able to coexist freely. But in areas suffering the effects of habitat loss, or where large numbers of hives are introduced over a short period, it appears that honeybees can sometimes negatively impact wild populations and even pass on the pathogens that have spread through increasingly intensive practices and the trading and transportation of hives.

It’s difficult to grasp the full extent of species decline; to do so, one needs a perspective that extends across time as well as space. Each new generation tends to form its own baseline ‘normal’, and so misses the changes taking place across longer timescales. In the first half of the 20th century and before the introduction of industrial agriculture, the UK supported many more hives than it does now – the fact that over here we’re talking about competition at all is an indication of the extent and severity of habitat loss.

Beekeeping is not and never has been about ‘saving the bees’, but neither has it previously been associated with ecological harm – yet where quantities of hives are already present, where endangered species are under threat, and where foraging and nesting habitats are scarce, many beekeepers are now keenly aware of the need to work sensitively with the wider ecology and foraging capacity of their region.

A few years ago, for a strange and strangely transformative few months, I became peculiarly embroiled in the life of a beehive. I’d recently moved to Oxford, a city unusually rich in meadows and parks, walled and gated college gardens, canals and riverways – not that I noticed much of this at first. I’d previously taken part in what had amounted to a very informal apprenticeship with a beekeeping friend in London, so I knew a little about honeybees, though when I was gifted a colony by a group of friends, the prospect of becoming responsible for tens of thousands of buzzing insects didn’t fill me with easy feelings.

I was unsettled in Oxford. I didn’t like my new job, didn’t like the idea of being beholden to anything, didn’t want to be tied down. And, too, in the way that we humans are so good at telling ourselves one thing and feeling another, I also longed for it; longed to feel situated, homed, tethered, settled – whatever ‘settling’ meant. So, I was interested in keeping. I was interested in what it means to keep, in how we go about keeping, through a time of uncertainty and change. (Consider for example that, while modern dictionaries define the word ‘keep’ as ‘an effort to retain’, its original meaning might have been closer to ‘lay hold, with the hands, and hence with attention; to keep an eye on, to watch’.)

Humans have been keeping honeybees for more than 6,000 years. Few creatures figure so prominently in myth and folklore, in religious texts and literature, in ancient healing rituals and magic rites – they carry great imaginative and symbolic heft; so, I wondered that year, what had happened? How had we arrived at a situation whereby those intricate and fine-tuned creatures had become co-opted as part of the system of intensive agriculture responsible for destroying those same flower-rich landscapes that they and other pollinators need in order to thrive?

Humans had tried to keep but it didn’t seem that they were keeping, or the keeping didn’t look good: it looked precarious, harmful even. And we must be approaching it from the wrong angle, I thought, holding on to the wrong things – but here I was not just thinking about beekeeping, I was thinking about our dealings with all species. Perhaps the relationship between beekeeper and bee contained a clue, I thought, to what was happening in the natural world at a much larger scale; and, just like that, I lost myself to the library, tracing the hive through history, charting how beekeepers have figured themselves variously as shamans, observers, scientists, managers – and, sometimes, as fellow creatures.

In Ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder described hives built from small pieces of transparent ‘mirror-stone’; in the 17th century, the English writer John Evelyn described a highly decorated octagonal hive with multiple tiers adorned with little dials, statues and weather vanes; a century or so later came François Huber’s Leaf Hive, a box of wooden frames that looked to me more like a book than a place for a colony of bees. I’d read the letters and diaries of these early beekeepers – had followed their efforts to make sense of the interior life of the colony as they tried joining the dots, filling in the missing pieces, arriving at conclusions that strike us now as impossibly peculiar. Honey comes from heaven, according to Aristotle; it is ‘the saliva of stars’, argued Pliny – or else ‘the perspiration of the sky [or some kind of] moisture produced by the air purging itself’.

The colony opened me out, led me into a new understanding of the world and my place in it

Meanwhile, the colony had arrived in my garden, and these curiously sensitive and complex creatures had begun teaching me something new. Sitting by the hive, watching the bees’ passages in and out of the entrance, I learned about communication pathways I hadn’t known existed. It’s pitch-black inside the hive, so honeybees use senses other than vision – taste, touch, heat and sound vibrations – to pass messages between each other (lacking ears or an auditory such as our own, they listen instead through their antennae and through subgenual organs in their legs). This system of communication is startlingly precise: having attended a single waggle dance, a foraging worker bee can follow the dancer’s directions to a food source even at a distance of several kilometres away.

I experienced waves of protectiveness towards these tiny newcomers; felt unexpected upsurges of care. Getting a window on the interior life of another creature is a curious experience, and the bees unsettled me, they upturned my usual ways of seeing and going about the world. I began noticing other nonhuman life in the city, and all those wildflower meadows and riverways I’d missed at first. I met Paul, who introduced me to a group of beekeepers attempting to keep better, keep differently, shifting the emphasis away from honey production and onto the bees and their wider ecology. Many members of this group were involved in passionate campaigns to reduce pesticide use; some had started local initiatives to plant flowers in places where they were missing. I suppose I’d imagined that having a hive in my garden might offer an escape from the human world, with all its stressors and strains. In fact, the colony opened me out, led me into a new understanding of the world and my place in it. I began thinking about landscape differently, and about relationship differently, and language.

I had some odd encounters that year; some unexpected meetings. I wrote them all down, and the writing became a bookA Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings (2018). Since people have begun reading it, I’ve received letters from others with similar stories; similar experiences of confusion, change and even transformation brought on by an encounter with a hive. And, too, I’ve heard from people who have felt these things by way of encounters with other species – with the wildlife that exists on their doorstep, in their back garden, down the road – having never kept a hive at all.

This season, I’m co-keeping: helping a friend a few miles away with the honeybees in his garden rather than keeping a hive of my own in Derbyshire, on the edge of the Peak District, where I now live. It’s a different experience from the one I had in Oxford, and a more distant one – but I like the idea that groups or communities might get together in this way; that they might come to know honeybees not just as ‘livestock’ and therefore ‘of use’, but in all their vivid and ancient intensity, even through these strained and strangely devastating times.

Which brings me to a new question or preoccupation: how to get to know these new, or newly recognised, bees in my garden – the wild species I don’t keep, don’t have any explicit responsibility towards, whose types and subtypes are so numerous that I struggle sometimes to tell them apart? How to extend that same impulse to protect and care toward species I can fail even to name – and toward a landscape, an environment, an ecology?

Since that year in Oxford, I’ve read dozens, perhaps hundreds, of articles about climate breakdown, insect decline and biodiversity collapse. I’ve been involved in projects to build ‘pollinator corridors’ across the UK; have supported projects to raise awareness about the plight of bees in communities where that knowledge is scarce. I led a writing workshop in a prison with men learning to keep bees from behind wire fences; I’ve signed petitions, I’ve written letters to my MP. And I’ve felt by turns inspired and frustrated, optimistic and hopeless. I suppose this is how it goes. It’s not easy to be connected, not easy to not switch off. And yet this seems to me sometimes like the most urgent imperative of them all.

I had an email from Paul today. He’s preparing for a beekeepers’ meeting at his house, and putting together the latest figures from the group’s annual losses survey. His message is as full of anecdotes and stories as ever; and wisdom, and humour, and eagerness for debate and learning. It is this that I like about him. It is this – his capacity for generosity and care, for determined and wide-ranging engagement – that he and others I met that year have taught me. Bee ‘keeping’, I’m finding, increasingly takes place at a whole landscape level – and it is a perspective of this kind that we must learn to take if we’re to properly address the true causes of insect declines. Keep, keeping, keeper – the scope of those words should extend far beyond the space of a hive, shouldn’t it?