Beekeeping, an interview with Tim Rowe
Here at the nature reserve our beehives are quiet. The weather outside is frightful, so the bees huddle together for warmth (who can blame them), and eat their way through the honey stores they spent all summer and autumn making. In their huddle, called a ‘winter cluster’ the worker bees work in rotation constantly fluttering their wings and shivering to keep the temperature up and the queen bee warm in the middle. So a worker bee never rests, not even in winter!
The process of making honey out of flower nectar is nothing short of incredible. After preparing hundreds of honeycombs out of beeswax, worker bees pack them throughout midsummer with flower nectar. The bee then creates a warm draught by flapping its wings very fast over the opening to each cell. This helps water to evaporate from the surface of the nectar. After a while the bee unpacks the nectar, chews and swallows it to mix it with enzymes from its tiny mouth and honey stomach – this is a second stomach which only the honey-bee possesses. (See diagram)
After all that mastication and rumination the nectar is re-packed into the cells. This process is repeated several times as the flower nectar gradually turns into honey. Once the honey is stable the cell is sealed with wax.
In the wild, nectar-processing takes place in cells surrounding the brood-nest, so that honey-filled cells give the young larvae a layer of protection and insulation as well as a food source. This means in a wild nest, say in the hollow of a tree, the young larvae would all be contained within a ball of cells in the middle of the hive, while the honey cells would form a layer around the outside.
In the standard National hive, which we currently have at Highland Titles Nature reserve, humans have drastically altered the bee’s natural habitat and thrown in a few obstacles for good measure in an effort to make life easier for beekeepers. For example restricting the queen’s movement (and restricting the brood nest to just one box as a result), discouraging the creation of drone cells and preventing the movement of queens between the brood chamber and the ‘supers’ (smaller honey producing boxes). This forces the bees into the rather unnatural position of having to travel further from the brood for the majority their honey stores.
Although this has long been the method considered most convenient for beekeepers, a beekeeping practitioner and teacher called Tim Rowe has challenged this, and has come up with his own method of beekeeping which considers the convenience of the bee instead of the keeper.
In his own design which he calls the Rose Hive, Tim has abandoned the queen excluder and made all the boxes a uniform size and shape, so that the bees themselves can choose where to place their brood. Having given his bees this freedom Tim has found to his surprise and delight that his bees have become more healthy and productive than he has ever known before.
In this climate of shrinking world bee populations and dangerous viruses it’s definitely worth exploring what we might do to help our bees in any way we can, so here is Tim to talk about his long experience of beekeeping and the Rose hive method.
Hello Tim and welcome to Highland Titles Community pages. We’d like to begin by asking you, just how important to the eco-system are bees?
Thanks for inviting me onto your website.
It seems to me that bees are no more nor less important than any other species. Because they are all vital. We need all the species we can get if we want to live in a healthy beautiful diverse planet. (Possibly even a few humans!) Of course many plants depend on honeybees as pollinators and nutrient distributors – but it’s more complicated than that. The bees’ role isn’t simply the job they do. For one thing, they connect us directly with the incredibly intricate mechanics of my local environment. Species interact with their neighbours in a million different ways.
Can you tell our readers about the products that are either produced by or dependent upon the beekeeping industry?
I’m just a beekeeper who tries to look after his bees and harvest some honey. I also collect wax. I understand that honey, wax, propolis and pollen are all used commercially on an increasing scale in food, pharma and cosmetics – but spreading honey on toast is good enough for me and my customers : – )
Your philosophy seems to emphasise the health of the bees and increasing the size of your colony over honey production. How does that differ from traditional beekeeping methods?
Not quite – health is number one, but the size of the colony is down to the bees and what they want to do. I just don’t restrict them, that’s all. In fact, a colony of bees will get far bigger than is usually seen if you don’t restrict them, and in a good year will provide 100kgs of surplus honey.
It seems fairly obvious that humans are largely responsible for the problems that bees are struggling to cope with: chemical fertilizers, international trade spreading disease etc. Is there any hope that things may change for the better?
We live at a time when there are 6 Northern White Rhinos left in the whole world (last count) and 7.2 Billion humans. We are a plague, for sure, and there’s no hope for those rhinos and little hope for very many other species. But that’s all natural too. Plagues of all sorts come and go. It’s what’s left behind when the balance is restored, that’s the question. Do I think there will be honeybees left? Well, for many gardens and hedges around here, they’re already gone. Life goes on without them, but it’s really not the same.
Change is commonly met with resistance. Can you tell us how your philosophy has been greeted by the beekeeping community?
Almost without exception, with positivity and interest. Every day, literally, I hear from people who have thrown out their excluders and allowed their colonies to do what they want, and are delighted with the results. I never set out to change the way people keep their bees – I just wanted to explain the way I do it and why, but it certainly struck a chord with many people who had also been asking themselves the same questions as I had: why do we have two different sized boxes? Do we really need an excluder? What do bees do in the wild?
What attracted you to beekeeping and how did you get started?
When I was 14 a swarm took up residence in a derelect hive in the garden. No one else in the family had the time to take it on, so I had a go. I am now 52, and have been a beekeeper almost continually since then. It’s been a privilege.
Historically when did controlled beekeeping begin, and how did our ancestors make hives?
The biggest change to the bees, I would argue, was the introduction of the queen excluder 150 years ago. It obviously restricts the queen’s and the drones’ movements, but it also forces a change in the formation of the brood nest, and the arrangement of the entire hive. When I first experimented with excluder-less hives I was often surprised to see the queen on the crown board (on top of hive) or walking on the honey, because I had been told that queens stay in the brood nest. (In fact, of course, the queen had no choice.) Since then I have learned a lot more about the colony as a whole and now I would be surprised if she didn’t inspect the whole hive regularly.
Do modern beekeepers have anything to learn from their ancestors on good beekeeping practise?
Absolutely. One area in particular interests me these days – natural swarming. In the days of skep-keeping, colonies were forced into regular swarming simply because the hives were way too small. This led to relatively high numbers of offspring from a colony each year, with the higher chance of genetic change or at least epigenetic modification. This is exactly what we need these days – lots of bees, some of whom will succeed. Of course, this doesn’t particularly suit honey production, but I rely less and less on honey sales these days so I hope to experiment more along these lines in the future, at least with some of my hives. (Not that I would use skeps – just smaller hives. 1 or 2 rose boxes.)
A great deal of what our forebears did with their bees was nonsense – but most was relatively harmless and the bees coped anyway. We’ve replaced some of their practises with nonsensical ones of our own (mass-transportation/excluders/pesticides) – but it’s not at all clear whether bees will cope with what we do.
What in your experience have you identified as the most likely reasons for Colony Collapse Disorder, and is there anything we can do as beekeepers to reverse the trend?
Humans and their curiously short-sighted, human-centric practises. (What could we do to reverse this trend in humans? Probably nothing, except wait!) As for CCD, it’s just one of many threats to bees. In this area (SW Ireland), for instance, the biggest threat by far is increased rainfall. Beekeeping here is already marginal and summers are getting wetter (this year being a happy exception). Climate change in general is undoubtedly the biggest threat to all species – and if you live in a vulnerable area you can already see the effects.
What would your advice be to people wanting to start up their own beekeeping projects at home?
Do it! Absolutely! It is probably the most interesting and endlessly enjoyable things you can do in your back garden! Expect losses, expect successes. Yes, I would suggest you start with a Rose hive – but only if it’s easy that way. Any hive will do for a start. (Rose hives are the simplest sort of hive that uses frames, but there aren’t that many in use so you might meet with a lot of blank faces amongst your beekeeping associates.) Humans have grown up alongside many other species all throughout our development – some would argue this interaction with other species is still vital for our socialisation, contentment and understanding of the world around us. Yet so many people grow up in a desert of buildings and cars and no other species around them except the odd cat if they’re lucky. So keep bees for yourself, for your neighbours, for your environment and for the bees themselves.
What difference has the Rose Hive method make to the health and ‘wellbeeing’ of your own bees?
A huge difference! It’s so easy now to change out old combs, manage colonies really quickly without fuss, and let the bees do what they want to do in their home. They know best what’s good for them, so I interfere as little as possible. Here in Ireland we have a huge problem with AFB (American Foul Brood) – and I sometimes see it here too. It’s everywhere and miserable. But since I moved over to Rose boxes that’s literally the only problem I see. No chalk brood, dissentry, nosema, acharine. It could be coincidence of course, but they’re all common enough here too. I’m assuming that’s mostly down to replacing brood comb often – so I am increasing that. Almost all the frames that are given to a hive during the season contain only a strip of wax in each frame – the bees have to build fresh comb almost everytime. But that’s what bees like to do!
And the only colony I lost to starvation was a nuc I forgot I had – no other losses to starvation in 10 years with 100 hives – and I never ever feed sugar.
So although I have so much more to learn about bees and beekeeping, I really feel that I am on the right road. I look forward already to next season and am planning modifications and comparative trials. Nothing else in my life (and I do lots of other interesting things) compares to beekeeping – so I hope that any readers out there might be encouraged to get involved. Good luck to them and to you on your excellent project!
Many thanks Tim for taking the time to give us your fascinating insight on beekeeping. If you want to know more click on this link to Youtube, where Tim gives a short demonstration of his methods in a wondrously beautiful garden!
For those who want further reading here are Tim’s books below: