My natural beekeeping conference
The twenty twelve natural beekeeping conference coincided with the last weekend of the London Olympics but I’m not sure any of us even noticed. Although no medals were to be awarded, a conference is a time and place for recognition, not just of the work to be presented but also of every attendant and their personal relationship with honey bees.
Everyone’s experience at a conference is different. You meet and talk with different people, have different responses to the same lecture and may be stimulated by different ideas. Yet often there is a flavour, an all-pervading atmosphere that this particular games, I mean gathering, represents.
The conference’s title was ‘The Future of Beekeeping’ and whilst just about any topic is safely covered by this large umbrella, I thought there was more than a hint in the air of the topic of communication.
Questions for discussion and reflection were – ‘What are the bees telling me?’, ‘How do I understand the language of the bee?’ and finally the emotive ‘Is my future more or less secure than that of the bees?’
From claims of direct channelling from the ‘Bein’, a sort of overarching bee deva as I understand it, to careful observations of subtle changes in bee behaviour at the hive entrance, we teased out how we come to learn anything from these mysterious creatures. Lessons ranged from looking at their social cohesion as an advanced stage of evolution that we might aspire to, to more personal lessons often learnt in the form of stings for ‘No’! Pavlovian conditioning of humans!
Pain from venom nudges us to know what not to do in the most physical way but how we experience the reward for positive action is harder to pin down. As a strictly English-only speaker the title ‘Nestduftwaermebidung – Myth or reality?’ brought a smile to my face that I find as difficult to explain as the German word! Is it due to pleasure at this sentence of a word or the impasse at being asked a question that so emphatically stumps you? I don’t know but the nature of Nestduftwaermebidung is similarly intangible.
The scent and warmth of the atmosphere in the hive is how I have understood the Nestduftwaermebidung concept. The myth or reality question is whether it can be the germ-free, health-promoting atmosphere that it is so important to preserve yet is released and dissipated whenever we open the hive. It made me think fondly of an aromatherapy massage. By all means put that in the lab and see what the positive effects are but like a good joke the best part will evaporate under dissection.
Johannes Wirz whispered his way to our hearts if not always our ears with his gentle manner and admission that studying fruit fly behaviour by first killing the flies perhaps wasn’t the best way to understand their true (living) nature.
I met a writer at breakfast and we didn’t talk about bees all that much but I realised later we hadn’t really gone off topic at all. I asked if he had his little book to capture those fleeting thoughts and observations and he immediately reassured me by producing a mini voice recorder from the side pocket. Writers know that like volatile oils, only materialising when the temperature warms and gone almost as soon as noticed, thoughts and ideas are tricky to capture. Sometimes they return but many seem to pass through only once.
In our final panel and audience session one audience member said he hadn’t learned anything but had met a sense of peace – the culmination of an undisturbed, health-promoting atmosphere? As I picked apart my own experience I realise just how much I had learnt, some very practical skills (how to capture a swarm and put it in a horizontal top bar hive), many insights about how bees communicate with us and just how much we seem to know about what to do if only we will be still and listen to ourselves. And I learnt more about myself in a conference situation, the social behaviours and dare I say hierarchies that seem inevitable to us mortals. We may concur to a common, and noble, purpose but a noticeable difference between us and the bees seems to be our need for recognition for the job we do.
Natural beekeepers have taken a step in the right direction already. They have listened to what the bees are telling us as a species, that if we keep doing what we’re doing we might risk extinction. On a personal level they tell us when they don’t like a manoeuvre, they leave a hive we’ve allocated to them if it’s not deemed suitable and vote with their feet! They sting us when we’re clumsy, teaching gentleness and become incensed when we interfere too much with the sanctity of their home. Natural beekeepers are duly proud when they can boast of using no suit, gloves or smoker. If we were to recognise gold, silver or bronze perhaps this would be one of the chosen activities.
I try to resist the temptation to award medals to my favourite speakers as I feel they deserve recognition not just for the work they have put in for the bees but also their presentations – how human am I? Behind an apparently simple talk lasting perhaps an hour there is often a wealth of experience and sheer hard graft. For example, David Heaf is a bio-chemist, Johannes Wirz completed that PhD in fruit flies, Heidi Hermann was a professional translator for many years and her communication skills are doing wonders for the Natural Beekeeping Trust. There were many other knowledgeable and skilled speakers I would like to recognise for their invaluable work not just with bees but also in how they are raising the profile of an apicentric view of beekeeping: Phil Chandler, John Haverson and Tomas Radetzki. There’s no doubt that we can learn so much from the bees and it is vital to honour our personal relationship with them but bringing other skills, disciplines, to them can enrich the experience of working with the bees manifold.
We didn’t end with flashing lights, aging rock stars (although there is at least one such natural beekeeper that I know of) or royalty in the audience but I know where I would rather have been!