The Honeybee: our vital link between agriculture and ecology

Agriculture and ecology aren’t considered synonymous. The farmer and the ecologist are more often opposed than in agreement and yet there are crucial times when their opinions require reconciliation. Devastating honeybee colony losses have caused widespread concern. In researching and writing Farming for the Landless: New perspectives on the cultivation of our honeybee, I saw an ideal opportunity to realise the cultural study of a creature that today symbolises and embodies both agriculture and ecology. Alongside in-depth analysis, the book narrates the recent experiences and views of expert beekeepers, agricultural scientists, ecologists and beekeeping representatives across Europe, giving voice to the science, campaigns and collective practices currently focused on improving honeybee health.

With the news that the UK government has just accepted the National Farmer’s Union request to revoke its agreed suspension of certain neonicotinoid pesticides ahead of the forthcoming EU review, it should be evident that not all farmers will be pleased: beekeepers, as both farmers and ecologists, aren’t supported by this decision.

The following extract from Farming for the Landless introduces the issues that affect our shifting cultural perceptions of the honeybee and beekeeping at this moment of critical change.



The honeybee, Apis mellifera, is a species on the cusp of culture and nature. Whereas inside the hive it is evidently a kept creature adapted to its containment, foraging, swarming and mating flights are all reminders that the honeybee is principally an untamed, social insect responding to its colony’s needs. With expansive colony sizes, proliferate reproduction and broad feeding habits, A. mellifera is vigorous within its environment. Our cultural appreciation of the honeybee reflects the opportunistic ways we’ve found to benefit from this inherent productivity. Honey, the foodstuff made from nectar to feed colonies, is also a sweet and nutritious addition to our diet, often connoting a gift from nature that simply needs collecting. The practice of following bees and gathering honey can be dated back to Mesolithic times and yet we’re obviously far removed from the hunter-gatherers of our past. Over time, we’ve become beekeepers by providing colonies with convenient shelter, utilising their innate behaviour to nest in dark cavities. Since at least 2,400 BC in Ancient Egypt, we’ve trialled and perfected methods of keeping bees for a more reliable honey harvest. By incrementally developing these careful methods to contain colonies without wholly disturbing their busy, beneficial behaviour, we’ve also encouraged an even more productive bee.

Managing hordes of insects involves much more than housing colonies to harvest their honey, however. The beekeeper’s practice routinely involves regulating colony development, moving hives to habitats with plentiful forage, providing top-up food in leaner months and treating colonies against diseases. Many beekeepers also choose a subspecies or specific breed for their apiary, commonly selecting for high productivity combined with ease of maintenance. In many ways, keeping bees is comparable to other forms of husbandry. Farming dairy cattle, for example, includes similar aspects such as providing shelter, developing the herd, ensuring access to fodder, checking for ailments, as well as deciding on an appropriate breed; milk and honey are both managed harvests. Although bees, as foragers rather than grazers, cannot be totally confined, they are undeniably reared creatures. Under our care, the honeybee has become a form of livestock. 

Commercial apiary, Fushë Kosovë, Kosovo

Despite this fact, beekeeping remains conceptually distinct from farming and is more often described as a hobby. In the popular imagination it’s a genteel pursuit with a history of cloisters and private walled gardens. We picture an eccentrically dressed character in a white all-in-one suit among a model arrangement of secluded hives surrounded by cultivated flowers. The beekeeper is mysteriously involved in the prudent inspection of a buzzing mass with smoke and a mask, simultaneously protected from and enshrouded by this environment. We’re intrigued by such an outlandish activity, and yet any hives we happen to spot dotted in the landscape remain unassuming. Although we know they conceal whole colonies, we may not associate the odd honeybee we see with those boxes. Each hive remains outwardly plain and static. As beekeepers with both large and small apiaries often keep their hives on wasteland, behind hedgerows and along field margins, most hives remain discreet within their surroundings. With no owner in sight, we’re unlikely to imagine the occasional yet heavy labour necessary to move hives from place to place, to reposition them nearer plentiful, seasonal forage. Demarcation and permanence form a large part of our standard impression of agriculture: fields, gates, fences and hedges, the farmhouse, barns and yards. The established position of the farm in the landscape is representative of land ownership. The inconspicuous and portable apiary is modest in comparison, existing both physically and perceptually on the fringes of agriculture: beekeeping is farming for the landless.

Migratory beekeepers, Dobruja, Romania

Although unrecognised in standard agricultural classification, even when commercially undertaken, beekeeping is central to food production. When honeybees collect nectar and pollen to feed their colony, they simultaneously pollinate plants, many of which we grow as staple crops. Without honeybees, a wide variety of fruit, vegetables, cereals, seeds, nuts, oils, herbs, spices and medicinal plants wouldn’t be systematically pollinated. As the honeybee repeatedly visits the same source of forage in its thousands, it is also a highly efficient worker; unsurprisingly, of all pollinating insects, this particular species has become our specialist in the field. Large-scale monocultural farming, which requires reliable and timely pollination, particularly benefits from the temporary location of many hives near a crop in flower. Whereas small-scale beekeepers might choose to relocate hives closer to plentiful forage, commercial beekeepers are specifically contracted to service these crops. Long rows of hives lining fields are indicative of a valuable trade: while plants are being pollinated, bees are collecting copious forage; the arable farmer expects a higher yield and the beekeeper more honey. Within this reciprocal arrangement adapted from nature, both the honeybee and the beekeeper are without doubt vital to modern farming practice.

Rather than thriving from this positive exchange, however, the honeybee is ailing, and its decline is occurring on a scale that cannot be ignored. Initial media interest focusing on disturbingly empty hives has been followed by articles, books and documentaries further raising public awareness, which in turn have led to a series of high-profile campaigns, petitions and even political fallout across Europe. We’ve been warned that our mutually beneficial relationship with the honeybee, and with it our own well-being, is under threat. We’ve related one-third of the food we eat with the work of the honeybee and firmly associated its demise with potential crop failure; the economic risk of losing a reliable means of crop pollination has been calculated in billions per year in the UK alone. While reporting has been sensational, current honeybee losses are alarming and the problems we face very real.

Within a short period of time the honeybee has become indicative of environmental discord, raising pertinent questions about the state of modern agriculture. Beekeeping has become much more than a classic pastime now that this ancient work has acquired new contexts. As the bee we keep bridges the gap between farming and the environment, it provides an ideal opportunity to develop discourse regarding contemporary land use. The farmed bee, our honeybee, has become a matter of compound ecological and cultural significance.

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Sarah Waring is the author of Farming for the Landless: New perspectives on the cultivation of our honeybee, Platin Press, 2015. She lives and works in the UK and Italy, studied Fine Art Photography at the Royal College of Art, lectured at the University of Westminster and University of the Arts, and worked as a writer and media publishing editor in London. She has travelled extensively throughout rural Europe where her interests in ecology and agriculture have been brought to life especially via hands-on experience in Austria, Italy, Sweden and Wales. 

With the book and the bees, we travel from England to France, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Sweden, Kosovo and Romania. The use of land where apiaries are kept is paramount to the book’s narrative, including remote beekeeping on non-agricultural land in the far north, community beekeeping projects in urban regeneration areas, rural commercial beekeeping practices concerned with ecology, and small-scale migratory beekeeping co-existing with large-scale agriculture.

All photos used in this post are © Sarah Waring.