Jul 16, 2023

Is Beekeeping Wrong?

By Sam Knight

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On a hot, pollen-dazed morning this summer, I stopped by the house of Gareth John, a retired agricultural ecologist, who lives on a quiet lane above a river in Oxfordshire, to take a look at his bees. In British beekeeping circles, John, who has a white beard and a sprightly, didactic manner, is well known as a “natural beekeeper,” although he acknowledged right off the bat that this was a problematic term. “It’s an oxymoron, right?” he said. John cares for perhaps half a million bees, but he does not think of himself as keeping anything. “I wouldn’t call myself a dog-keeper,” he said. “But I have a dog.” Natural beekeepers are the radical dissenters of apiculture. They believe that mainstream beekeeping—like most human-centered interactions with the natural world—has lost its way. There is another path, but it requires the unlearning and dismantling of almost two centuries of bee husbandry and its related institutions. During my visit, John asked me not to disclose his exact location, because his hives fell off the radar of the National Bee Unit, a government agency that monitors honeybee health, about a decade ago, and he prefers it that way.

John grew up in the English countryside in the sixties and seventies, when beekeeping was—as he remembers it—a gentle, live-and-let-live pastime: men in veils pottering around a few hives under the apple trees, jars of honey for sale at the garden gate. “It was very, very leave-alone,” he said. “Natural.” When John returned to the craft, in the early two-thousands, he was shocked by what it had become. In 1992, an ectoparasitic mite called Varroa destructor, which had jumped from an Asian honeybee to the Western one sometime in the fifties, emerged in Britain and killed untold millions of bees. Thousands of hobbyist beekeepers gave up. (Varroa reached the U.S. in 1987, and wrought similar devastation.) There was an atmosphere of vigilance and doom. Bee researchers talked about the “Four P’s”—parasites, pathogens, poor nutrition, and pesticides—as if they were the horsemen of the Apocalypse. The British Beekeeping Association, which has served as the custodian of the craft since the late nineteenth century, ran courses on pest control. “Fear,” John said. “Disease. Disease. Disease.” He watched fellow-beekeepers treat their bees with miticides, to control varroa; import more prolific queens, and other non-native bees from southern Europe, to boost honey production; and feed their hives syrup to get them through the winter. “It had become this agro-industrial monster, where you were supposed to behave as if you had a high-yielding Holstein dairy cow,” he recalled.

It didn’t feel right. As a species, the Western honeybee (Apis mellifera) is millions of years old. (It was introduced to North America by European settlers in the sixteen-twenties.) Although people have harvested its honey and wax—sweetness and light—for thousands of years, the honeybee has not been tamed. “Wheat is domesticated. Cows are domesticated. Dogs are domesticated,” John said. “Domestication is a mutual process. You could never domesticate a robin. Bees are the same as robins. They will quite happily live in a nest box that you give them. But they’re not dependent on you. They don’t need you.”

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John did not believe that beekeeping’s intensive turn was helping the bees. He looked around for other skeptics and came across “The Principles of Beekeeping Backwards,” a quasi-mystical tract published in Bee Culture, in the summer of 2001. The text was by Charles Martin Simon, a.k.a. Charlie Nothing, an artist and an experimental-rock musician who invented the dingulator, a guitar-like instrument made from car parts.

Simon, who was based outside Santa Cruz, California, was also an organic farmer and a beekeeper. He had developed his own kind of bee frame. (In the fall of 1851, the Reverend Lorenzo L. Langstroth, a Congregationalist pastor from Philadelphia, created the world’s first commercially viable beehive with removable frames and, thus, modern beekeeping.) “Beekeeping Backwards” was Simon’s disavowal of the craft that he’d practiced for forty years. He rejected chemicals for treating varroa; synthetic foundation frames, to make bees construct neat honeycombs; and the removal of male drones, which don’t contribute to honey-making. “Our industry is directed by madmen,” Simon wrote. “They have been driven mad by the fear of death and simultaneously compelled irresistibly toward it. Death of our beloved bees. Death of our beloved industry. Death of ourselves.”

The better part of two centuries after Langstroth’s hive went on sale, natural beekeepers liken much conventional beekeeping to industrial agriculture—permeated by chemicals and the delusion of human control. They dwell on the differences between the lives of wild, or free-living, bees and those which are kept in apiaries. Managed bees are typically kept in a drafty box low to the ground, as opposed to a snug nest high in a hollow tree. Most beekeepers’ colonies are much larger than those which occur in the wild, and rival colonies might be separated by only a few yards, rather than by half a mile. Much of the bees’ honey, which is supposed to get them through the winter, is taken before they have a chance to eat it. A queen bee goes on a spree of mating flights early in her life, and then lays the fertilized eggs until her death. In apiaries, queens often have their wings clipped, to interrupt swarming (a colony’s natural form of reproduction), and are routinely inspected, and replaced by newcomers, sometimes imported from the other side of the world. Propolis—a wonderful, sticky substance that bees make from tree resin and that has antibacterial qualities—is typically scraped out of hives by beekeepers because it is annoying and hard to get off their hands.

These are all dire interventions in the fabric of the colony. No wonder the bees keep dying. In a normal year, perhaps ten or fifteen per cent of bee colonies die in the winter. Last winter, America’s bees suffered colony losses of close to forty per cent, with varroa, “queen issues,” and starvation among the leading causes. High death rates tend to lead to more bee imports, more bee medication, more bee supplements, more bee-breeding programs, and the whole unwieldy cycle continues.

Natural beekeepers leave their bees alone. They seldom treat for disease—allowing the weaker colonies to fail—and they raise the survivors in conditions that are as close as possible to tree cavities. They fill their hives with swarms that come in on the wing, rather than those which come from dealers who trade on the Internet. They treasure the bees for their own sake—like a goldfinch that nests in the yard—and have an evangelical spirit, as if they have stumbled on a great secret. They are disdainful of conventional beekeepers. “They’ve completely lost sight of the creature,” John told me.

Honey is a touchy subject. John said that he harvests only an absolute excess—after the bees have enough for two winters and a wet summer—and even then he won’t take money for it. “It’s not my honey to sell,” he explained. Another natural beekeeper, who abstains from taking honey altogether, referenced “When Harry Met Sally” to explain his position: “There was this line, ‘Sex always gets in the way of friendship.’ I think honey always gets in the way of us appreciating bees.”

Bees were long held to be prophetic—messengers from another realm. The name of Deborah, the prophetess and judge of the Old Testament, translates as “bee.” The priestesses who tended the oracle at Delphi were known as Melissae. Melissa means “bee,” too. For a quarter century, anxiety about the fate of honeybees has been a manifestation of our unease about the state of pollinators and our biomes in general. But that doesn’t mean we have been interpreting the problems correctly, or that humans are the best placed to find solutions. Natural beekeepers think of themselves as deferring to the bees for guidance. “If I go to a hive and I put my hand on the hive . . . I can actually feel their presence, and that balance and that skill and that beauty that only nature can provide,” Jonathan Powell, of Britain’s Natural Beekeeping Trust, told me. “And yet if I think of a bee flying up to the window of my house, putting their antennae on my house, I’m frankly embarrassed by the way I live, and how clumsy and how stupid I am.”

In Oxfordshire, John led the way to his apiary, which was on a small pasture at the back of his property, bounded by high hedgerows. There was a lock on the gate and a small workshop, where he makes and maintains fifteen or so hives. A honeybee colony is a female commonwealth—a biological marvel of social decision-making by a queen and her thousands of female workers. (Beekeeping, by contrast, was for a long time a patriarchy. The monks of Mt. Athos, in Greece, were allowed to keep bees because the insects were assumed to be all male.)

“Hello, sweethearts,” John said, as he revealed the glass inspection wall of a Warré hive, first developed by a French priest in the nineteen-thirties, that he had reimagined. The rest of John’s apiary was like a real-estate showcase for honeybees. There was a log hive on stilts, and woven skeps, basketlike hives that were popular among the Vikings. Conventional beehives tend to be portable, so they can be moved around farms, and easy to access, to help beekeepers inspect and manipulate their bees. John’s hives were homes, for the bees to make their own. Approaching a skep, he opened his palms, in a submissive pose modelled on wall paintings of ancient Egyptian beekeepers, and asked me to step out of the bees’ path as they flew in and out of the entrance.

John visits his apiary most days, to watch and listen to his bees. “There is communication going on,” he said. “And it’s a two-way communication, if you allow it to be.” His modifications to the Warré hive incorporated new dimensions, inspired by the golden ratio of the Fibonacci sequence.

Inside, the colony looked like a train station at rush hour. John pointed out bees fanning their wings, to keep the temperature and carbon-dioxide levels under control, and guards stationed at the entrance, apparently checking the bright-yellow beads of pollen that arrived on their fellow-bees’ knees, like bag searchers at a museum. In the forties, a German beekeeper named Johann Thür used the term Nestduftwärmebindung—literally, nest-scent-heat-binding—to convey the heady fug of warmth, humidity, pheromones, and other mysterious signals that is essential to a healthy bees’ nest. Natural beekeepers often speak of the hive in somewhat spiritual tones, as a single, sentient organism that has evolved in parallel to mammals like us. “This creature is not like any other creature we ever interact with,” John said. I touched the glass. The hive thrummed. The smell of honey rolled across the pasture.

On the afternoon of August 20, 2002, Thomas Seeley, a biology professor at Cornell, arrived at a clearing on the edge of the Arnot Forest, in upstate New York, with a wooden bee box that held a piece of old honeycomb filled with syrup. Seeley is the world’s leading authority on the lives of wild honeybees. He had come to the same clearing twenty-four years earlier, in August, 1978, as part of a survey of the forest, during which he found nine wild colonies, living in the trees.

Seeley was curious, and somewhat fearful, about what had happened to the forest’s bees since the arrival of Varroa destructor. He had lost nine of his ten research hives to the mites. In the clearing, Seeley roamed with the bee box. For ten minutes, he wondered if all the wild bees were gone. Finally, he spotted a honeybee feeding from a goldenrod flower. After she fed from the syrup in the box, Seeley took a compass reading of her path—her beeline—as she flew back into the trees. When bees find something good to eat, they inform their fellow-foragers by means of the waggle dance—a representation of direction and distance that takes its bearing from the sun—which the other bees interpret, in the darkness of the nest, mostly by touch. More bees arrived in the clearing. By the end of the afternoon, Seeley had two solid beelines—one heading north, one heading south—indicating at least two nests in the forest.

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During the next twenty-seven days, Seeley found eight bee colonies in the Arnot Forest, but in a smaller area and in less time than he had in 1978—suggesting that the wild population was just as healthy as it had been before varroa. “How can this be . . . . ?” he asked in Bee Culture, the following year. Seeley aired three possibilities: the bees in the forest had been sufficiently isolated to escape infection; they had been infected, and were about to die; or—his hope—the bees had been exposed to varroa and had developed some form of resistance.

“None of us knew at the time how strong the selection would be in the wild,” Seeley told me recently. “It turned out that the bees had the variation needed to develop the traits to resist the mites.” While beekeepers were experimenting with chemical treatments and hive designs, the bees in the forest were changing genetically. Their life styles helped them, too. “Colonies living in the wild have many things going for them,” Seeley said. The bees lived in smaller groups, relatively far apart, which made it harder for varroa to spread. They swarmed every year, which broke the reproductive cycle of the mites. (If a colony swarms, the nest is left without bee larvae, which is where varroa mites take hold.) Wild nests were hygienic and coated in propolis. Their Nestduftwärmebindung was on point. Seeley shared his findings in books and papers, but they weren’t what most beekeepers wanted to hear. “My phone didn’t ring off the hook,” he said. Seeley is gentle and plainspoken, but his conclusions were totalizing. “As I see it, most of the problems of honey bee health are rooted in the standard practices of beekeeping,” he told me in an e-mail, “which are used by nearly all beekeepers.”

In March, 2017, Seeley proposed what he called Darwinian Beekeeping. “Solutions to the problems of beekeeping and bee health may come most rapidly if we are as attuned to the biologist Charles R. Darwin as we are to the Reverend Lorenzo L. Langstroth,” he wrote in the American Bee Journal. Seeley listed twenty differences between the lives of wild bees and those kept in conventional hives. He observed that the most routine beekeeping activities—taking wax, preventing swarming, even looking inside a hive—constituted profound disturbances for bees.

“I don’t think anybody contests that free-living bees have a better, easier life,” Seeley told me. “What is contested is whether that’s realistic.” Seeley acknowledged that there will always be commercial bee operations, for honey production and for crop pollination. But these constitute the minority: around ninety per cent of American beekeepers are hobbyists, with twenty-five colonies or fewer. Seeley compared intensively managed bee colonies to racehorses. “They live a short, hard life,” he said. “My whole aim has been to present that there is an alternative. In the United States, beekeepers are taught only what we might call the industrial form of beekeeping. And that’s where I would say, ‘No . . . there is a choice here between how you want to relate to an organism whose life, in a way, you have under your control.’ ”

Natural beekeeping has arisen alongside a broadening sense of bee intelligence. People have always known that the creatures are remarkable. “The discovery of a sign of true intellect outside ourselves procures us something of the emotion Robinson Crusoe felt when he saw the imprint of a human foot on the sandy beach of his island,” Maurice Maeterlinck, a Belgian playwright and bee scholar, wrote of bees in 1901. “We seem less solitary than we had believed.”

The Mayans worshipped Ah-Muzen-Cab, the god of bees and honey. In Lithuanian, a verb meaning “to die” is reserved for humans and bees. Like us, bees practice architecture and their own, presumably less debased, form of democracy. In 1927, Karl von Frisch, an Austrian zoologist, explained the waggle dance, for which he later won the Nobel Prize. “The bee’s life is like a magic well: the more you draw from it, the more it fills with water,” he wrote. And the water has only kept rising. In 2018, researchers showed that bees understood the concept of zero—an ability previously thought to be limited to parrots, dolphins, primates, and recent humans. (Fibonacci introduced zero to Western mathematics around the year 1200.) When I spoke to Seeley, he was running an experiment on the importance of bee sleep at a research station in the Adirondacks. “It’s not just an energy-saving process,” he explained. “It really improves their cognitive abilities.” A bee’s brain is the size of a sesame seed.

In the early nineties, when Lars Chittka, a German zoologist, was a graduate student in Berlin, he was not sure that bees could feel pain. In 2008, he co-authored a paper suggesting that bumblebees could suffer from anxiety. Last year, Chittka published the book “The Mind of a Bee,” which argues that the most plausible explanation for bees’ ability to perform so many different tasks, and to learn so well, is that they possess a form of general intelligence, or bee consciousness. “Bees qualify as conscious agents with no less certainty than dogs or cats,” he wrote.

Chittka based his conclusion on work in his own lab and on hundreds of years of bee study, including that of Charles Turner, a Black American scientist, who was denied a university-based research career and instead worked as a high-school teacher in St. Louis. Starting in the eighteen-nineties, Turner observed variations in problem-solving among individual spiders, “outcome awareness” in ants, and the ability, in bees, to steer by visual landmarks—“memory pictures”—rather than by instinct. Turner posited ideas of general invertebrate intelligence which were almost entirely ignored. “He was really a century ahead,” Chittka said. Last year, the U.K. passed legislation that recognized animals as sentient beings, capable of feeling pain and joy. So far, the bill dignifies vertebrates, decapod crustaceans (crabs and lobsters), and cephalopods (squids and octopuses), but not a single conscious bee.

The more we know about bees, the more complicated beekeeping becomes. When I visited Chittka’s lab, he flipped open a laptop to show me a sequence from “More Than Honey,” a Swiss documentary from 2012, which included footage from the pollination of California’s five-billion-dollar almond crop—an annual agro-industrial pilgrimage that involves an estimated seventy per cent of America’s commercial beekeepers. On the screen, a mechanical arm scraped tumbling bees and honeycomb from the edge of a plastic hive, before loading it onto a truck. “It’s disgusting,” Chittka said. “But the absurd thing is that these people then complain that their bees are dying.”

Like many entomologists, he does not see honeybee health as primarily an ecological problem. “Where they are under threat, it’s because of poor beekeeping practices,” Chittka said. In the scientific literature, the Western honeybee is sometimes referred to as a “massively introduced managed species” (MIMS), whose population is increasing on almost every continent, often to the detriment of other wild pollinators. In 2020, researchers concluded that the thirty-three hundred wild bee species of the Mediterranean basin were being “gradually replaced” by a single species of managed Apis mellifera. The same year, a report from the Royal Botanic Gardens, at Kew, warned that parts of London had too many honeybee colonies, whose foraging was displacing the city’s wild bee species. “Beekeeping to save bees could actually be having the opposite effect,” the report found.

“I often get asked, ‘So, is this true, that all the bees are dying?’ ” Chittka said. “And any nuanced message—‘Well, it’s not the honeybees. It’s the other wild bees’—is often misinterpreted. ‘You’re saying there’s not a problem?’ And, actually, there is a problem. It’s just a slightly different one.” For a long time, the honeybee was characterized as a canary in the coal mine, an omen of catastrophe for the rest of the world’s pollinators. In recent years, some scientists have begun to question this analogy and to challenge the conditions of industrial agriculture and conventional beekeeping instead. “We see the canary, we know it is unwell,” Maggie Shanahan, a bee researcher who recently completed a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota, wrote, last year, in the Journal of Insect Science. “But focusing solely on individual aspects of canary health actually keeps us from asking more fundamental questions: Why are we keeping canaries in coal mines in the first place? Why are we still building coal mines at all?”

The first meeting of the British Beekeepers Association took place on May 16, 1874, at a town house on Camden Street, in North London. It was a self-consciously modern project, which aimed to replace the homemade skeps and uncontrolled swarms of the rural working classes with honesty, sobriety, and the latest beekeeping technology. Beekeeping exams began in 1882. Members took part in “bee-driving” competitions inside a large mesh tent, in which they raced to find a colony’s queen. (The first winner was C. N. Abbott, the founder of the British Bee Journal, with fourteen minutes and thirty-five seconds.)

There have been times, during its century and a half of existence, that the B.B.K.A. has more or less merged with the British state, in the causes of pollination and honey production. In 1898, the Postmaster General allowed live bees to be sent in the mail. The National hive, Britain’s version of the Langstroth, was introduced in the twenties. During the Second World War, beekeepers were allowed extra sugar rations. The B.B.K.A. now has around twenty-seven thousand members. You can become a Master Beekeeper if you pass ten of the association’s exams, in such fields as biology, honeybee management, and queen rearing. B.B.K.A. members are encouraged to use their harvests to bake Majestic & Moist Honey Cake.

When I read about the B.B.K.A., the first thing it reminded me of was a bee colony. Powell, of the Natural Beekeeping Trust, compared it to a church of conventional beekeeping, complete with its own liturgy and rituals, such as the National Honey Show. “Every year, that syllabus is pounded into them,” Powell said. “We have hymns and chanting in religion because the message is always the same.”

The president of the B.B.K.A., Anne Rowberry, was hard to reach. (Last October, she travelled to London to give the King a jar of honey.) But I met Margaret Murdin, a former chair and president of the B.B.K.A., for a coffee in Chipping Norton, a market town in the Cotswolds. Murdin is one of around ninety holders of the National Diploma in Beekeeping, the U.K.’s highest qualification. Her day job, before she retired, was advising the government on special-needs education. “I should have been an entomologist,” she said. Murdin said that neither she nor the B.B.K.A. had any quarrel with natural beekeepers. (The association discourages the importing of queens and supports local bee breeding.) From Murdin’s point of view, any animosity came from the other side. “How you keep your bees is entirely up to you,” she said. “If they don’t like it, they will leave.”

Murdin admired Seeley’s bee research and agreed with almost all of it. “They certainly prefer not to be interfered with,” she said. “That goes without saying. So do I.” But she drew the line at two of the basic tenets of natural beekeeping: allowing bees to swarm and not treating them for disease. Swarms, she said, bother the public. (They also usually mean a significant hit to the honey harvest that year.) “If I had cows, I wouldn’t want them jumping out of their field and annoying my neighbors,” Murdin said. “I don’t want my bees doing it, either.” At heart, Darwinian beekeeping offended her sense of responsibility as a beekeeper. “You can let the bees get on with it, if you hadn’t interfered so much in the first place,” she said. It was humans who brought in varroa and pesticides and agricultural monocultures. “You can’t say, ‘We’ve got a pandemic and we’re not going to intervene. We’re going to let everybody die of Covid,’ ” she added. If we have broken the bees, then it is our job to fix them.

Beekeepers often joke about how much they disagree with one another: “If you ask four beekeepers, you will get five opinions.” Their collective noun, they say, should be an argument of beekeepers. I wonder if this has to do with each being the sole authority in his apiary, of being a “strange god,” in Maeterlinck’s phrase, to the bees. When natural and conventional beekeepers do clash, it is normally online. (On beekeeping forums, natural beekeepers sometimes signify themselves as “TF,” or treatment-free.) When I visited Gareth John’s garden, Paul Honigmann, from the Oxford Natural Beekeeping Group, joined us. There were a hundred and nineteen beekeepers on his e-mail list, compared with three hundred and fifty-four members of the Oxford branch of the B.B.K.A., and many belonged to both. According to the B.B.K.A., about a third of British beekeepers did not treat their bees for varroa last year. “There’s a phenomenon in sociology where, when you’ve got a very small out-group, nobody cares,” Honigmann said. “When that immigrant population or whatever hits a certain threshold, they are perceived as a threat.”

There is rarely an occasion for beekeepers to fight in the open. (One bee conservationist told me that he left the B.B.K.A. after a physical confrontation at a meeting.) But Andrew Brough, a conventional beekeeper from Oxford, says that, in the fall of 2020, he was asked to move a dozen hives into the orchards of Waterperry Gardens, a set of ornamental gardens to the east of the city, to help with the pollination season the following spring. Unbeknownst to him, Gareth John had also been looking after bees on the property, with another natural beekeeper, for several years. Brough secures his hives with pallet strapping and metal fasteners. As the weeks went by, he began to suspect that someone was tampering with the hives. “They were progressively being opened up on a Friday,” he said.

Brough imports queens from Denmark. When he introduced a new queen to one of his hives, it disappeared. One day, Brough found John and two other natural beekeepers standing outside his hives. “They were trying to kill my queens,” he said. (John described Brough’s account as “slander” and said that he had stumbled across Brough’s hives, unaware of his presence in the orchard.) Brough says that he offered the natural beekeepers a jar of honey, to show that there were no hard feelings, but they declined. (Eventually, both Brough and John stopped working at the gardens.) Brough dismissed natural beekeeping as an image thing. “It’s new, green, rock and roll,” he said. “Beards and sandals.” He thought for a moment. “Quite a lot of ordinary beekeepers also have beards and sandals,” he conceded. Brough told me that he makes a subsistence living from selling queens and the honey that he harvests each year. “Why they want to keep honeybees, I do not know,” he said.

I wanted to find a beekeeper who was respected on all sides. Eventually, I heard about Roger Patterson, who maintains—a Web site built by a fellow-beekeeper who died in 2011—which is regarded as one of the world’s best sources of apiculture information. Patterson started keeping bees sixty summers ago. He served for eight years as a trustee of the B.B.K.A., but he is better known as the president of the Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders Association, a more radical outfit that has long opposed the importing of foreign bees. Patterson has a reputation of being somewhat ornery. He is critical of exams and isn’t scientifically trained. But his views command attention. “I would very much believe what he’s telling you,” Seeley said. “He’s a straight shooter.”

Patterson runs a teaching apiary for his local beekeeping association in a small wood in West Sussex. When I arrived, he was in a clearing, clipping queens. I waited on the path with his dogs. Patterson wore jeans that were held up with green suspenders. He pulled a pair of plastic chairs out of a shipping container and we sat down to talk by his car. He was despondent about the state of beekeeping generally, whether natural, conventional, or on commercial bee farms. “When I first started keeping bees, at least fifty per cent of our members worked on the land in some way. They were practical people. They were cowmen, or foresters or gardeners,” Patterson said. “If they had a problem, they knew enough that they could get out of it for having a bit of gumption.” Modern beekeepers preferred simple answers. “There’s a lot of narrow thinking going on,” he said.

Patterson was sympathetic to the ideas of natural beekeepers, although he suspected that many of them were misguided novices. “ ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be lovely?’ You know,” he said. During the pandemic, Patterson experimented with not treating his bees for varroa and lost sixteen out of nineteen hives. He was fine with that. But he needed to have bees to teach with, so he had to start treating again.

What really worried him were the bees. Something was up. “Very up,” Patterson said. Since the early nineties, he had noticed that his queens could not lead their colonies for as long as they used to. In the past, Patterson’s queens had lived for five or six years. Now they were being superseded—deposed by the colony—within a year or two. Patterson hadn’t changed his beekeeping techniques much since 1963. “It is a massive problem,” he said. Some of the queens seemed fine. Others had misshapen wings. Patterson’s theory was that something was interfering with the bees’ pheromones in the hive, their Nestduftwärmebindung. But he didn’t know what.

“Lots of things are changing,” he said. “People are changing. The bees are changing. The environment’s changing.” Patterson wondered whether natural beekeeping was just another human vanity that was being foisted on the bees. At the same time, he had come to doubt the health of the creatures whose lives he was managing from season to season. “I reckon that the bees in trees are healthier than bees raised in hives,” he told me. But Patterson was a beekeeper. “Throughout my beekeeping life, I have always tried to improve the bees,” he said. Patterson explained that when he said this most people thought he meant improving the bees to make more honey. “I think you can improve bees from the point of view of bees as well,” he said. Patterson was not ready to admit that this task might be beyond him, or any beekeeper. He had inspected nine colonies that morning. After I left, he was going to place new queens into the hives that he feared would not last the winter. ♦