Beekeepers vs. Bee Havers
With over three-hundred-thousand commercial honeybee colonies, the province of Alberta is the fifth-largest honey-producing region in the world and by far the largest in the country. With an average of two-thousand hives per beekeeper, Alberta is an interesting place to be a small scale or hobby beekeeper.
While small-scale and hobby operations have always been part of the beekeeping community, the last decade has seen a surge in new interest. Though I can’t be sure, I suspect that increased awareness of environmental issues, and understanding of the importance of bees, people looking to reconnect with their food, and retiring boomers with newfound free time are all contributing to the rise in new beekeepers. While I see this trend as positive, new beekeepers have, at times, come under criticism. At a local beekeeping meeting, one commercial beekeeper referred to hobbyists are “bee havers” and accused them of spreading disease. And a recent Facebook comment read:
My understanding is that hobby bee keeping poses a real threat to actual bee farmers because of unintended but still neglectful practices… Leave bee keeping to the professionals. – Facebook Comment
Scale Has Nothing To Do With It
Let’s be clear, there is no excuse for neglectful beekeeping practices at any scale. Anyone keeping bees ought to approach beekeeping responsibly and take an integrated pest management (IPM) approach to prevent and manage diseases. Nobody wants dead bees.
Bee Havers and Beekeepers: A Difference In Priorities
What is clear is that hobby “bee havers,” and commercial “beekeepers” have different priorities. While honey production is the goal of most commercial endeavours, hobbyists are more interested in learning about bees and the pleasuring of managing their colonies. While both groups are interested in having healthy colonies, the presence or absence of economic pressure to produce honey can significantly impact how each group manipulates their hives.
With little or no economic pressure to produce honey in large amounts, the hobbyist is free to manage colonies in ways that may be uneconomical or inconvenient for commercial beekeepers. For example, small colonies are less susceptible to varroa mites, openly-bred queens result in more genetic diversity, and natural comb provides better thermo-regulation within the hive, and yet, these strategies limit honey-production. If honey production is the goal, large colonies produce more, buying queens reduces uncertainty (and time), and adding foundation gives you beautiful straight comb with a higher percentage of productive workers.
Bee Haver Innovations
The rub is that many beekeeping techniques that are great for the bees are bad for honey production. Hobbyists, with less economic pressure to produce high yields, can tap into these techniques while still expecting a modest harvest.
What’s promising about bee havers is that they can afford to pioneer and adopt techniques that more closely align with the biology and evolution of bees – strategies that may one day find acceptance at larger scales. As in nature, what’s essential for the health and survival of any industry is diversity, and right now, I see this diversity within the small scale and hobby beekeeping community. The world, maybe more than ever, needs more bee havers.